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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in G, Op. 126 (1966) [32:51]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 (1963) [34:36]
Jamie Walton (cello),
Philharmonia Orchestra/Alexander Briger
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 1-2 March 2008. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD137 [69:33]
Experience Classicsonline


Jamie Walton brings expressive musing to his solo at the start of the Shostakovich second concerto yet also some warmth. The orchestral cellos and basses create a murkier, more solemn atmosphere, imbibed by the soloist but when he soars beautifully into upper register (tr. 1 1:03) this is like an infusion of light and positive statement. The next excursions into the upper register begin a growingly passionate phase, in turn followed by pleading, humane, even sunny passages from 4:14 of double stopping, given sufficiently rapt space without loss of overall flow. This is all finely phrased with the orchestra and Alexander Briger’s direction integral in conveying unanimity of approach throughout these mixes and changes of mood.
 
I compared the work’s dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich in concert in 1966 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis (BBC Legends BBCL 4073-2). Here are the comparative timings: the published bracketed timing includes applause.

Timings
I
II
III
Total
Walton/Briger
14:39
4:32
13:40
32:51
Rostropovich/Davis
14:17
4:20
14:52 (15:05)
33:29 (33:42)

Rostropovich’s opening is more meditative, yearning and growingly heartfelt once upper register is reached. The movement is more starkly dramatic, the double stopping more graphic. You feel here’s a character unfazed by greatly varied experience. But Walton and Briger more clearly reveal the movement’s architecture.
 
Their second movement scherzo is alert and wry. This time when Walton reaches upper register (tr. 2 0:50) he lets his hair down more as appropriate to glissandi at the ends of the phrases. There’s a sardonic relish about all this and it reaches its zenith with a manically affirmative theme of narrow range and many repeated notes (2:37). Walton and Briger make the structure and rhythmic impetus crystal clear. Rostropovich and Davis, on the other hand, have more fun.  Rostropovich is lighter in tone and manner, while the orchestra is more showy in its sheer zest.
 
The virtuoso display of the finale’s horns’ opening is followed by equal bravura from Walton’s cello solo, yet with a suddenly sunnier lyrical tail (tr. 3 1:58). Jamie then pleasingly provides a delicate backing to a musing flute solo, backing which has more ardent shape later to clarinet solo. In the mean time he’s started off a jaunty march (3:10) whose second appearance is more abandoned, but the lyrical tail refrain is a calming influence. The mood becomes more expansive with a more folksy melody (6:35) to which Walton brings a kind of carefree wistfulness, but with a more expressive second appearance and a rugged third time march before becoming more frenetic altogether. After this pandemonium Jamie richly and affectionately recalls from 12:47 the first movement before we’re left with a celebration of just rhythm.
 
Rostropovich’s opening solo in the finale is a headier gritty display and celebration. By contrast he makes the lyrical tail more melting. His folksy melody is more emotive, with less beauty than Walton but more of an underlying sadness and sense of heritage and finely shaded quieter moments, while in the climax Davis unleashes the orchestra with more ferocity. Jamie’s account, then, is meticulously fashioned, attractive and engaging, often with appreciable beauty of tone and admirably explicit structure. Slava, on the other hand, conveys more character and sense of experience.
 
While the Shostakovich cello concerto conveys a personality in different moods, the Britten cello symphony seems more about a character evolving in response to a dramatic situation. Walton’s opening is a gritty statement in baleful surroundings as if born of heroic endeavour, giving way to a more effusive, febrile manner (tr. 4 1:07), the second element of the opening material, here graphically realized. The second theme (2:34) has the solo cello sighing over a backcloth of pizzicato violins and double basses and cushioned sustained ground bass by the violas and cellos. Alexander Briger well conveys the richness and claustrophobic quality of this texture. The recapitulation (7:44) sees the orchestra with the theme and soloist with the lugubrious bass, lightening the mood somewhat until the woodwind screech the second element. The second theme has more potency when given to violins and violas but the solo cello eloquently takes it back in pleading upper register (10:11). In the stately elegiac coda (10:48) the upper woodwind sing over the soloist’s pizzicato.
 
I compared the 1964 recording by Rostropovich, also this work’s dedicatee, and the English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten (Decca 4251002).

Timings
I
II
III
IV
Total
Walton/Briger  
13:10
3:55
9:43
7:48
34:36
Rostropovich/Britten
12:30
3:38
10:33
7:22
34:03

Rostropovich’s opening is more gnarled, Britten’s handling of the orchestra more sepulchral yet also with more sense of progression. The second element is more tense but also appealing from Rostropovich, the second theme more cowed yet with a greater sense of architecture and continuity than Walton. On the other hand Jamie gives it more emotion and fullness, the suffering and sensitivity more overt. His long solo from 4:41 with wind comments at the end of the development is a clear-eyed yet compelling exploration where Rostropovich is more introspective. The latter’s return to the second theme is tender but Walton is sweeter. Britten’s coda has more mystery and sense of awe than Briger’s. 
 
To the exotic scherzo (tr. 5) Walton brings lively, nervous energy, matched by woodwind playfellows; but the trumpets and trombone’s punctuating chords seem like a sinister presence biding its time. Walton enjoys a slower, more cajoling version of the opening theme (1:00) but the restless orchestral undercurrent is never far away. The brilliance of the movement is revealed more than its scary aspects. The crescendi are neatly controlled, though the sul ponticello strings from 3:21 are chilly enough. Rostropovich’s articulation is more feathery, the overall impression with Britten’s direction more shadowy and evanescent, the punctuating chords more distant. There are occasional flashes of scintillance which later have a nightmarish quality. Slava’s slower version of the theme is quieter yet more deeply expressive than Jamie’s.
 
The Adagio slow movement is presented by Walton and Briger as an impassioned, dark elegy. At its centre (tr. 6 2:18) is a plaintive, soulful melody from the soloist with muted horn as sympathetic companion and high muted strings’ backing. The opening material returns in more abrasive form, trombones and later trumpets presenting the basic melody in stark outline to a mighty climax followed by the soloist’s cadenza. Walton clearly reveals its mix of passion and reflection, pizzicato and arco and all shades of dynamic. The feeling is of a character evolving before your ears.
 
The Rostropovich/Britten slow movement opens and is in all sterner passages at higher voltage than Walton/Briger while the central melody is presented feeling its way at first. So Slava is more dramatic, Jamie more elegiac and I like the flow and cohesion of this new account. Jamie’s central melody, even when presented in relatively gentle and comely manner, has assurance from the start, anticipating its later bolder appearances while the horn’s contribution is much clearer. Slava’s slower cadenza, 3:49 against Jamie’s 3:24, is more incisive in argument at first and finally more expressive in cantilena, though Jamie is certainly glowing in the latter section.
 
The finale (tr. 7) is firmly anchored by its passacaglia form but the trumpet starts it with a jaunty, Copland like version of the central melody of the slow movement. This is subjected to variations. The violins have the first, exuberant variation (0:41), the firsts chasing and almost falling over the seconds. The soloist has his own gleeful variation (1:22). The woodwind have an excited chattering one (2:15), the soloist a deft, perpetual motion one (2:57). Now the magical stillness at the centre of the Adagio is revisited (3:59) and expanded in arioso fashion before a majestic version of the theme is in the glowing coda capped by a grand statement of the opening Adagio theme. Walton and Briger bring a sense of exultant transformation.
 
The Rostropovich/Britten finale is more stimulatingly abrasive in variations 1 and 2, more racy in the third variation while Rostropovich is more hectic, less fun than Walton in the fourth. He gets thereby a greater contrast in his pearly arioso but Walton’s matching of lyricism and emotion here is at least equally satisfying. Britten achieves a more expansive, open air coda but Briger’s sense of summation is cogent.
 
Like the Shostakovich, the Britten work is cleanly and vividly presented by Walton and Briger. The Rostropovich accounts contain more drama and expressive range but Walton is his own man, offering here fresh performances of both appreciable concentration and engaging lyricism in recordings of illuminating clarity and density. 
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 


 


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