The programme is uncompromising and the playing time ungenerous,
but this is a disc of the highest quality.
Like the two previous Suites, the Sonata and the Cello Symphony,
Britten’s Third Suite for Cello was composed for Mstislav Rostropovich.
The first performance took place in December 1974, by which
time Britten was seriously ill with heart disease. Rostropovich
was the performer on that occasion, and although he had recorded
the first two Suites for Decca in 1968, he never went on to
record the Third Suite; indeed, so personal was his relationship
with the work that it was difficult for him to play it at all
once Britten had died. It is based on four Russian themes, the
thematic links becoming more evident with each hearing. As was
his later manner, Britten presents the themes only at the end.
There are three Russian folk songs and, to close, the Kontakion,
a hymn for the dead that confirms the overall atmosphere of
sombre reflection. Britten’s Suites have frequently been recorded
as a single collection, and they have been lucky on record.
Each one is a masterpiece, and cellists have responded to them
in many different ways. They are immensely challenging technically,
but Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi need fear nothing by comparison.
His performance is as fine and as moving as any I have heard.
There is a certain detachment about the playing, a noble loftiness
that does not spill over into coolness, but is evident when
compared to players such as Truls Mřrk (Virgin) or Jean-Guihen
Queyras (Harmonia Mundi), both cellists I greatly admire. But
this is a very fine performance indeed, and will surely encourage
listeners who don’t already know the earlier Suites to investigate
them. Curiously, the fifth bar of the Kontakion, on the final
page of the work, is missing, but this is certainly not a reason
to avoid this remarkable performance.
It was apparently Rostropovich’s playing of the Bach Cello Suites
that inspired Britten to compose one of his own, so Bach and
Britten together on disc seems appropriate and logical. If I
feel less qualified to comment on the Bach, that is mainly because
I find that supreme composer’s unaccompanied string music hard
going. The two slow movements of the present Suite, for example,
seem interminable, an impression compounded by the fact that
double and triple stopping interrupt the flow of the music to
the point where I can’t hear the beat. This is particularly
true of the Sarabande; and the Allemande, at eight slow quavers
to the bar, frequently subdivided into hemi-demi-semiquavers
- rare beasts usually sighted only in theory books - is a particular
challenge for this listener. I persevered, however, and did
come to enjoy parts of Perényi’s reading. He makes the rhythms
dance in the faster movements in a way that certainly helps
a listener such as myself make sense of the music. Rostropovich
is an inevitable port of call when sampling other versions,
and he makes surprisingly heavy weather of the gavottes here,
at a slower tempo and greater weight generally. Truls Mřrk,
again, has a more wiry tone in this repertoire than either Rostropovich
or Perényi, which one can argue as being more authentic, and
he certainly imparts more of a dance rhythm than the Russian
cellist chooses to do. But having spent quite some time listening
to different performances of this work I conclude that Perényi
is a most reliable guide, his subtle variety of bow stroke only
one reason why he manages to introduce more light and shade
into this highly rarefied music. It only remains to add that
this performance differs in several insignificant details from
my old Peters Edition score.
Ligeti’s Sonata is more my cup of tea! The first movement, composed
in 1948 as a stand-alone piece, alternates beautiful pizzicato
slides with a long-breathed melody of unmistakeable folk inspiration.
The second movement was added in 1953, and is a fiendish moto
perpetuo with a surprise finish on a major chord. Little more
need be said about the music, as it speaks directly to the listener.
(The same can be said about most of Ligeti’s music, but the
listener must be open-minded enough to give it a chance.) This
performance is stunning, the second movement, in particular,
played with astonishing virtuosity. It is not the only way,
however: I am very attached to French cellist Emmanuelle Bertrand’s
performance on her very first recording for Harmonia Mundi.
She adds more than a minute to Perényi’s three and a half in
this movement, but hers is quite convincing taken on its own
terms. There can be no doubt, though, that Perényi’s playing
is astoundingly authoritative. He plays with total conviction,
as if the work belongs to him, and we are convinced in our turn.
The booklet contains an interesting article, in English and
in German, wherein Paul Griffiths discusses the programme and
Perényi’s approach to it. There are also some black and white
session photographs of the cellist. The recording is most beautiful,
the cello placed in a lightly resonant acoustic, but recorded
so closely that the slap of the strings against the fingerboard
is sometimes audible, reminding us of that titanic struggle,
and its miraculous result, when a master musician conjures heavenly
sounds out of such intractable materials as wood and gut.
Masterwork Index: Bach