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Suite for Cello, Op. 72 (1964) [24:44]
Second Suite for Cello, Op. 80 (1967) [22:32]
Third Suite for Cello, Op. 87 (1971) [22:51]
Paul Watkins (cello)
rec. September 2001 (Suites 2 and 3) and November 2002 (Suite 1),
Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, U.K.
NIMBUS NI5704 [69:08]
Here are three masterpieces for solo cello, not always easy
listening, but profoundly rewarding. All three were composed,
as were Britten’s Cello Sonata and Symphony for Cello and Orchestra,
for Mstislav Rostropovich.
The First Suite opens with a sonorous “Canto”, full of
double-stopping and diatonic dissonance. It is intriguing to
discover how much of the work’s musical material is present
in this opening movement. A pair of contrasting movements follows,
then a return to the “Canto” theme, modified and developed.
Another pair of movements precedes a further statement, then
two more movements follow, the second of which is entitled “Moto
Perpetuo” and from which the “Canto” re-emerges one last time.
The work closes with the whole of the “Canto” apparently telescoped
into only a few bars, a remarkable feat of virtuosity on the
composer’s part. A fugue, a lament, a serenade and a march are
all characterised by a nocturnal, almost dreamlike quality,
but there is also a darkness here also that is not only related
to night. The march, for instance, closes with the bugle call
that has featured throughout, now distant and ghostly, on high
harmonics, as if to evoke those fallen in battle.
Paul Watkins’ performance is a formidable one. The main difference
between his reading and others I know is that he brings out
rather more successfully the lyrical side of the work, perhaps
slightly to the expense of its drama. This may also be taken
as a comment on his performance of all three works, but the
music is certainly strong enough to support this approach. Some
will miss Rostropovich’s near-manic intensity. The reverberant
recording adds to the rather soft-toned nature of the reading.
The contrapuntal and developmental ideas seem marginally less
spontaneous in the Second Suite, but this is to pick
holes in near-perfection. Paul Watkins is superbly eloquent
in the opening “Declamato”. In the fugue which follows, he is
less strictly bound by the pulse than other cellists, and at
first I feared that he would be too overtly expressive. I needn’t
have worried, as he captures to perfection the strange, intangible
nature of the music. If he is marginally less convincing than
Rostropovich in the rapid “Scherzo”, with the Russian cellist
just having the edge in terms of security and intonation, then
this is hardly surprising. He maintains a marvellously disembodied
tone for the left hand pizzicato-accompanied melody in the untitled
fourth movement and the final “Ciaccona” is simply superb. This
is music that seems always to be on the verge of jauntiness,
without ever quite arriving there. Memories of Rostropovich
are once again not entirely effaced, particularly in the hugely
sonorous arpeggios about half way through. But Watkins is magnificent.
The Third Suite is the most personal of the three. We
almost feel like eavesdroppers. Like a number of Britten’s works,
this is a huge set of variations with the theme – or in this
case, themes – only appearing at the end, three Russian folk
melodies and a Russian hymn for the dead. The work is thus both
an act of homage to the dedicatee and a manifestation of Britten’s
late preoccupation with death that was to culminate in the last,
great opera, Death in Venice. By the time of the first
performance at Snape in December 1974, in Snape, Britten was
very frail, following unsuccessful heart surgery. Geraint Lewis,
in the excellent booklet note, suggests that Rostropovich was
so affected by the state of his friend’s health that he never
played the work again. I have not encountered quite this version
of events, and Alan Blyth, in Remembering Britten (Hutchinson,
1981) has this to say in his account of discussions with the
cellist: “Even when he played it during Britten’s lifetime,
he found it hard to restrain himself from crying. Now that Britten
is dead, Rostropovich finds it difficult to play it at all.”
No-one who responds to this music could fail to be moved by
Paul Watkins’ performance. This work, even more than the other
two, requires beauty of tone and command of a long, cantabile
line, and in these respects Watkins is unsurpassed. He is careful,
too, to bring out the curious obsession with the tension between
open and stopped strings on the same note. The character of
each movement is perfectly realised: whilst his seventh movement,
“Fantastico”, contains one or two unpleasant sounds, the fantasy
elements, ponticello and harmonic effects, are brilliantly
realised. The next to last movement is a long, intense and sombre
passacaglia, magnificently realised by Watkins before he eases
into the unadorned statement of the four Russian tunes that
comprise the closing movement.
There are many fine recordings of these works. I’m particularly
fond of Timothy Hugh’s two readings, one on Hyperion and the
other on Naxos. There is a little more grit in his playing,
and if the idea appeals, you might find his readings preferable
to these, which, with great success, seem to seek out the lyrical
side of the music. Truls Mørk (Virgin) is magnificent, and special
mention must be made of the readings French cellist Jean-Guihen
Queyras made for Harmonia Mundi at the beginning of his career.
Stephen Isserlis is deeply moving in the Third Suite
on Virgin, coupled with Tavener’s The Protecting Veil.
And no enthusiast of the composer should be without Rostropovich’s
readings of the first two. Careful listening is required to
perceive the differences between these different interpretations,
but the music is worth it, wonderfully varied and miraculously
well-written for the instrument. This fine disc is as good a
place as any to start.
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