Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
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.

William Hedley
A master cellist brings out the lyrical side of Britten’s solo cello writing.