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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Concerto No.2 in G, op.126 (1966) [34:52]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, op.68 (1963) [34:36]
Jamie Walton (cello)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Alexander Briger
rec. 1-2 March 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London, DDD
SIGNUM SIGCD137 [69:33]
Experience Classicsonline

Because of his long relationship with Peter Pears, which brought about his prodigious output of vocal music over a thirty five year period, Britten didn’t write many major non-vocal works after the success of Peter Grimes in 1945. The exceptions include the 2nd and 3rd Quartets (1945 and 1975), the orchestral Suite A Time There Was (1966 – 1974), Nocturnal for guitar (1963), Six Metamorphoses after Ovid, for oboe (1951) and the five works – three solo Suites, a Sonata for cello and piano, and this Symphony for cello and orchestra – written at the instigation of Rostropovich. With hindsight this latter collaboration must be seen as having had a liberating effect on Britten’s music creating works which were unlike anything else he ever wrote. The Sonata’s five movements are quirky, fresh and vital, the solo pieces display an austerity new, at that time, in Britten’s output and the magnificent Symphony shows us just what we lost in orchestral composition in exchange for the operas and song cycles. Yes, there is a complaint here for one is forever wondering about a further Britten Symphony for orchestra, a 2nd Piano and/or Violin Concerto. Although the wish-list is endless but, ultimately, pointless, one keeps wondering. At least with the arrival of Rostropovich in Britten’s life we are given a glimpse of what we might have had in both chamber and orchestral fields.

Rostropovich recorded both the pieces chosen by Walton and any new recording must immediately be compared to the master–creator–interpreter’s own view of the music, for he studied them with the respective composers. Rostropovich’s recording of the Britten has the added cachet of being conducted by the composer. Walton starts the Symphony in a bold way, even managing a Rostropovich sound in the heavy triple stopped chords; this is an impressive beginning. But he also knows exactly how to handle the second theme, holding back to allow the woodwind their solos when necessary and coming to the fore when he has the lead. The orchestration for this movement isn’t what you’d expect, with flecks of sound now here, now there, seldom settling into one continuous line anywhere. It’s difficult to weld all these disparate elements together into a convincing whole but Walton achieves this with seeming ease. If, perhaps, the orchestra is somewhat reticent it’s because of this quasi Webernian use of sections and solos. The second, muted, scherzo movement is full of rushing semi–quavers and whisps of sound from the band. Walton makes light of his scurrying part, yet miraculously articulating every note. The slow movement doesn’t quite have the tragedy or gravitas of Rostropovich and Britten, and is also a trifle too fast for my liking, and this robs the music of its gravity, but it’s well done. The cadenza, which links the third and fourth movements, is well sustained and the finale itself, a passacaglia based on a very Coplandesque theme has the whiff of triumph and completion necessary at the end of this difficult road.

Throughout, Walton is ably partnered by the Philharmonia, but Briger often fails to delve into the darkness which pervades this work and his interpretation leaves something to be desired for it is too often too light.

Walton’s performance of the Shostakovich 2nd Concerto is wholly satisfying. He hits exactly the right melancholic tone for the majority of the first movement; by turns he’s restrained, winsome and desperate, in the upper register, where he screams in agony. All in all this is excellent. The cadenza is particularly fine. The middle movement scherzo has a marvellously bluff sense of humour to it, the soloist never dominating, this is a real joint effort. The finale is taken slightly faster than I expected but this makes it rather playful – an element I’d never before considered in this work – but the ever returning cadence is as endearing as it could be. The end, with the mechanical knockings from the percussion, is quite dispassionate and slightly distanced from us. This is a fine performance with the Philharmonia giving full support, with Briger drawing excellent playing from every department.

Despite being 45 years old the Rostropovich–Britten recording of the Symphony still sounds well – it was one of Decca’s very best recordings with a huge dynamic range and fabulous perspective on the performers. However it exploits the darkness and depth of the music, and this might not be to everybody’s taste. It is a difficult, and disturbing, work and a slightly uncomfortable listen, but it is a towering masterpiece which should be better known. Walton’s recording is to be welcomed, despite its shortcomings, for he humanizes the piece in a way I’ve never heard before. As for the Shostakovich it deserves a full recommendation. A flawed disk, perhaps, but it has much to commend it.

Bob Briggs

see also Review by Michael Greenhalgh


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