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.