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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Suite for Cello, Op. 72 (1964) [22:09]
Second Suite for Cello, Op. 80 (1967) [19:26]
Third Suite for Cello, Op. 87 (1971) [18:17]
Tema ‘Sacher’ (1976) [1:22]
Jamie Walton (cello)
rec. 31 October-2 November 2011, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh.
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD336
[61:16] 

Suite for Cello, Op. 72 (1964) [21:55]
Second Suite for Cello, Op. 80 (1967) [19:55]
Third Suite for Cello, Op. 87 (1971) [21:02]
Saeunn Thorsteindottir (cello)
rec. April 2010, Julliard School, New York
CENTAUR RECORDS CRC3154
[62:55]

Britten’s three solo suites for cello is one of those collections which fits so nicely on a single CD it would seem almost churlish for a cellist to leave one out. Orientating ourselves with regard to these new recordings requires a look at some established versions. Truls Mørk on Virgin Classics (see review) is richly lyrical and expressive and hard to beat as a prospect for the longer term, inviting us to relish the music rather than challenging us to admire and respect it. Paul Watkins on the Nimbus label (see review) has quite an expansive view on the works and a lovely touch, though I don’t prefer him to Mørk for musical depth, and then of course there is Torlief Thedéen on BIS-CD-446 who has an appealing sense of communication though not with quite the accuracy of intonation in double-stopping or clarity of articulation as some. Any recording is going to have to confront these works’ dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich on Decca, and the authority of his performances, filled with Russian soulfulness and emphatic power makes this a ‘must-have’, if not automatically making any other recording into an ‘also-ran’.
 
So much for orientation. Jamie Walton’s recording on the Signum Classics label is beautifully recorded, and the photos in the booklet are from a DVD recording which will compliment this DC. The Snape Maltings acoustic is very good for solo cello, adding to the resonance of the instrument without casting too much extra personality to the sound. Walton’s performances are strong without being over-emphatic, subtle without being coy, and filled with a sense that the performer is enjoying the music. Listen to the Marcia in the Suite No. 1 or the bouncing twangs which inhabit the Bordone movement of the same piece and you take away a feel of uplifting pleasure in the playing which spreads into every corner of the recording. The extra piece, Tema ‘Sacher’ was Britten’s little contribution to Paul Sacher’s 70th birthday celebrations and it’s a bit of a scrub, so not much of a deciding factor amongst comparisons.
 
Saeunn Thorsteindottir’s recording on the Centaur label has a rather close balance which sounds a bit tubby in the mid-lower registers when compared with Jamie Walton’s recording. This gives the music a worrying boominess even over expensive headphones, so I can imagine this being a problem over some systems and in rooms of a certain proportion. This close-up examination of Thorsteindottir’s playing is fascinating, though perhaps better taken in smaller doses or with the volume reduced. She does have a stunning technique and terrific musicality, though the overall impression is a touch more earnest than Walton. I find it tricky to make an absolutely accurate value judgment in this case, wishing that there was just a little more air around the instrument - a greater chance for the sound to expand, for the expression to sing. If you listen to the Bordone movement of the Suite No. 1 those bouncing notes around the pedal tone remind me more of a double-bass than a cello, which ain’t really what we’re after.
 
Between these two releases I’m afraid the choice is a rather simple one, and if assisting you in my imaginary shop would opt for Jamie Walton every time. How does he stack up against Rostropovich in the first two suites? Not at all badly, though Walton’s playing is more ‘air’ bound than Rostropovich, by which I do not mean the latter is ‘earthbound’. I mean that with Rostropovich you feel his playing in the roots of the tree which grew the wood which was used to make his instrument, rather than mostly with the waving of the leaves above. I greatly enjoy Walton’s at times almost teasing playfulness with Britten’s solo masterpieces, and in terms of technique and impressive expressive depth he ticks pretty much all the boxes. For sheer inner luminosity and the feeling you are getting as much as possible of what Britten wrote, I would however still take Truls Mørk with me to the desert island.
 
Dominy Clements 

Britten discography & review index: Cello suites

Experience Classicsonline