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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cello Suite No. 1, Op. 72 (1965)
Cello Suite No. 2, Op. 80 (1968)
Cello Suite No. 3 (1974)
William Butt (cello) Rec 20-21 July 2003, Henry Wood Hall, London
WARNER APEX 2564 60493 2 [2CDs: 57.12+27.36]

In common with other composers, Benjamin Britten was frequently inspired by the artistry of great performers who became personal friends. It was for this most understandable of reasons that he created a special corpus of music for the cello, all of it for Mstislav Rostropovich: the Sonata for cello and piano, the three solo suites, and the Symphony for cello and orchestra. Together these masterly compositions find Britten at the height of his powers. As a collection they rank in significance with the music that Brahms composed for the great clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (though Brahms, of course, was a composer for whose music Britten felt little empathy).

The splendid British cellist William Butt is now in his mid-thirties, and he is developing a considerable reputation as a soloist, while playing in orchestras in Ireland, where he also teaches at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. These excellent performances of Britten’s three unaccompanied suites will do his career no harm at all.

Butt is helped considerably by the quality of the recorded sound. There is abundant atmosphere and presence, with a particularly pleasing bloom which generates impact while maintaining sensitivity. This latter point is important in this repertoire, since Britten makes such telling use of dynamic shadings and contrasts. More even than in Rostropovich’s own recordings, these features make their mark.

Britten composed the Suite No. 1 in 1964. The inspiration behind this piece and its fellows was the experience of hearing Rostropovich play the unaccompanied suites of Bach, which therefore became Britten’s point of reference. There is a real unity about the Suite, which has six movements ‘enclosed and divided by a Canto marked sostenuto e largamente’ (Michael Kennedy). Thus unity is a preoccupation, and this is something the performer has to communicate. In fact for anyone with the talent to tackle this music, projecting this unity must be the chief priority. And Butt sustains an eloquent line of continuity through the various contrasted sections, his technique always assured.

Three years later Britten composed a second Suite, whose personality is quite different. For example, there is a marvellously understated Fugue, which follows the particularly weighty tone of the opening phase, while rhythmic subtleties abound at every stage. The finale employs that favourite device of the composer, a ground bass, making it yet another homage to Henry Purcell. Again William Butt has the music’s measure, though his initial outpouring lacks the extraordinary intensity generated by Rostropovich. It remains powerfully eloquent however, and stands in its own right.

The Third Suite is one of the most personally committed expressions in all Britten’s instrumental output. There are nine movements across a thirty-minute span, but the results are unified, not episodic. Again there is musical material designed for the purposes of structure as well as expression. In this piece these take the form of four Russian themes, three of which are folksong arrangements by Tchaikovsky. The fourth, which Rachmaninov employed in his Vespers, is the Kontakion (Hymn for the Dead). The references to the rich possibilities offered by this material are abundantly subtle, so that once again the role of the cellist is to articulate individuality while maintaining unity. The finale movement is therefore the most demanding, since it takes the form of an extended passacaglia on the Kontakion theme. The music is at once eloquent, individual and deeply personal, demanding intensity of both tone and phrasing from the performer. The style is concentrated enough to make demands on the listener too.

William Butt plays with clear articulation and secure tone throughout this challenging masterpiece, which sets the seal on this whole project. The packaging is well organised, though as so often with this label, the font and the size of the printed notes makes reading them something of a struggle. The two discs come at a special price and are contained in a cleverly designed slim case.

Terry Barfoot


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