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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cello Symphony Op. 68 (1963) [37:37]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Oration – Concerto Elegiaco for cello and orchestra (1930) [30:41]
Steven Isserlis (cello)
City London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. Studio 1, Abbey Road, London, 12, 14 March 1987. DDD
Reissue of EMI Classics CDC 7497162
EMI CLASSICS BRITISH COMPOSERS 5059162 [68:18] 

Experience Classicsonline


That these two brooding ‘concertos’ for cello should appear coupled for the first time - to my knowledge, at least - seems very fitting. It is well known that Frank Bridge was Britten’s teacher and mentor. Until relatively recently, however, much of Bridge’s music has been shamefully little known. These are both brooding, big-boned works that largely concentrate on the darker side of the cello. They have both fared very well on CD prior to this release. The Bridge has enjoyed excellent performances by Alexander Baillie, Alban Gerhardt, Raphael Wallfisch and Julian Lloyd Webber, while the Britten has been recorded by its dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich (twice under the composer’s direction), Tim Hugh, Yo-Yo Ma, Truls Mørk, Raphael Wallfisch and Julian Lloyd Webber. None of these performances is inferior in any way and so this reissue of Steven Isserlis’s readings already has some hot competition. It is surprising that these works have not appeared together on CD before, given that Wallfisch and Lloyd Webber have recorded both of them. They make for apt stable mates; neither is a straightforward concerto, both are from later on in their creators’ careers and both make formidable demands of the soloist. 

Britten’s Cello Symphony was one of the many cello concertos written especially for Mstislav Rostropovich, and one of several pieces that Britten wrote for his friend ‘Slava’. It dates from 1963, two years after the War Requiem, and the classic Decca recording with composer, dedicatee and the English Chamber Orchestra was made very soon after the first performance in 1964. This really is a symphony with cello, rather than a cello concerto per se. It is in four very symphonic movements, with a substantial cadenza between the third slow movement and the final Passacaglia. I would have liked to have felt slightly more forward momentum in the Cello Symphony’s lugubrious first movement, as well as slightly more clarity of sound. To my ears, the sound on this CD is very slightly too boomy – very surprising given the provenance of the recording. Or perhaps the soloist just needed a somewhat more forward balance. The Presto inquieto is suitably nocturnal with very subtle colours. Here is it is more appropriate for the cello’s voice to be almost part of the orchestral texture. The slow movement is well done, with the timpani as dominant as they should be. I have never been able to stomach the odd, forced Coplandesque trumpet tune at the outset of the Passacaglia and have found this movement by far the weakest in the Cello Symphony. However, on the whole, Isserlis and Hickox give a thoroughly satisfactory performance of this illusive work. 

The strengths of Frank Bridge’s Oration rather show up the weaknesses of the Britten. It is a finely-wrought piece whose ‘oration’ is a protest against war – both Britten and Bridge were pacifists. Written in 1930, Oration is in an arch-like structure in nine sections which roughly correspond to four symphonic movements (another similarity with the Cello Symphony). Like the Britten, Oration receives a committed performance from Isserlis and Hickox. 

For anyone wanted these two pillars of 20th-century English concertante cello works, this recording is ideal in its obvious but rare coupling. 

Derek Warby


 


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