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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-76)
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 (1963)
Suite from Death in Venice, Op. 88, arr. Steuart Bedford (1973)
Rafael Wallfisch (cello)
English Chamber Orchestra/Steuart Bedford
recorded in St Barnabas Church, Finchley, London, 26 March 1984, and All Saints’ Church, Tooting, London, 27 November 1984
CHANDOS 10274 X [61'05"]

It’s a wonderful thing that discs like this - near-definitive performances, more than twenty years old, but sounding as good as anything recorded yesterday afternoon - are these days being reissued at budget or mid-price, bringing great music into our living rooms for mere pocket money.

I was a young university student when I first heard the Cello Symphony, a couple of years after its first performance. Although at the time I was being swept along by discoveries of Mahler, and daily encounters - courtesy of an enthusiastic roommate - with ‘new’ Shostakovich, I found myself joining the throngs of popular opinion at the time and dismissing Britten’s latest piece as a ‘miss’. But why oh why, especially as it inhabits the sound-worlds of both Mahler and Shostakovich? Well in my case, because I had neither the courage nor the experience to think anything which countered what I perceived to be an ‘expert’ judgement, however much I thought I ‘understood’ what I had heard, or had a genuinely considered (albeit secret!) view. Other people, I suspect, found its material overly simple, even unmemorable, and the scale of its drama far too compact to be truly effective. Since the War Requiem, many listeners had come to doubt the genuineness of Britten’s emotional framework, and weren’t reassured by what they heard in the new symphony. And in the 1960s - although atonalism was intellectually ‘trendy’ - the idea that a symphony should be one thing and most certainly not another was endemic among small-minded academics and journalists: so poor Britten couldn’t win!

Happily, history or the passage of time has a habit of righting such wrongs. Like the War Requiem the Cello Symphony has become established repertoire - there are several recordings in the catalogue - and almost universally admired. I would go so far as to suggest it is imbued with genius. Its economy of means and the compactness of its argument are measurements of its indebtedness to classical masters. The recurring scalic material - so beautifully diatonic - recalls Mozart and Haydn, even if its working out is personal: indeed, it is all uniquely Brittenesque. The arresting opening superimposes the soloist’s syncopated multiple-stoppings over a solemnly descending scalic bass, like a great baroque chaconne: and the second subject of the same movement marries sustained pianissimo chords with ascending scales (ingeniously disguised!) in pizzicato strings. This kind of subtle integration and re-use of material is symphonic in the tradition even of Beethoven: it’s clever, but it speaks to us directly. There are many more stylistic echoes. Bach may be heard in the unaccompanied third movement, and in the passacaglia which draws the symphony to a close. And, as so often with Britten, the lyric fingerprints of Schubert are everywhere in evidence.

Rostropovich and Britten himself are the yardsticks by which all other performers and performances must be judged in this repertory. By the standards of the great Russian cellist - achingly intense, unashamedly extrovert - Wallfisch (no more so than in the intimate soliloquy of the third movement) is perhaps a shade too contained. But even so, both his virtuosity and his command of expressive nuances are all one could possibly want.

Bedford is uniquely authoritative among post-Britten conductors: he brings out countless details and pursues the argument persuasively. The much-expanded ECO is on top form. As the first movement fades away, the winds are miraculously unanimous in tone and tuning. And, in the visionary coda of the finale, the trumpets blaze and the strings shine.

The Death in Venice suite is Bedford’s own: I’m surprised we don’t hear it more often, because it gives us much of the most memorable (and it’s very memorable) music in a manageable and accessible format. Like so many other symphonic syntheses of operas - Stokowski’s Wagner, for example; or Strauss’s Strauss; and Hindemith’s Hindemith - voice parts appear on all manner of orchestral instruments, including even the tuba. The main examples of such are the strawberry seller - in the ‘First Beach Scene’ - and, in the ‘Pursuit’, Aschenbach himself. Inevitably, you don’t find yourself becoming involved in the psychological journey quite as you would do in the opera house. But absolutely no apologies need be offered: this is a completely convincing symphonic poem.

In the opera, the Polish family whom Aschenbach encounters in Venice are not singers, but mimers and dancers: their music is instrumental, and a particular feature of the score. This is one reason why Bedford’s suite ‘works’ so well. The inspired percussion writing - four players plus timpani in the suite, five plus timpani in the opera - is matched not only by superb playing on this disc, but also by some of the most realistic recording of such sonorities I’ve ever heard. The depth of bass and the sparkle of high-pitched overtones has to be heard to believed! Again, the ECO’s wind can only be marvelled at. The solo oboe shadowed by solo flute in the reprise of the ‘I love you’ music makes a wonderful transition into the scene of Aschenbach’s death and is utterly beautiful.

In a marketplace teeming with good discs of Britten’s music, positively none is better than this.

Peter J Lawson

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