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British Cello Concertos
John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Concerto in Two Movements for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, Op. 171 (2012) [23:02]
Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1991) [28:40]
Christopher WRIGHT (b.1954)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2011) [18:56]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/William Boughton
rec. 11-13 December 2013, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
LYRITA SRCD344 [70:38]

Lyrita’s championing of British composers, especially those unsung and neglected ones, has been laudable. Since those first LP releases in 1959, the enterprising label has served up some mouth-watering gems, much to the delight of collectors. Listening to these three cello concertos, each one a newcomer to the catalogue, I’m in no doubt that Lyrita has struck gold again.

As a passionate trail-blazer of British music, the cellist Raphael Wallfisch has an impressive array of home-grown cello compositions in his repertoire. It includes not only the stalwarts from the likes of Elgar and Walton (Chandos  CHAN8959), but also works from lesser knowns such as Holbrooke, Scott, Bowen, Bush & Brian, Rawsthorne, Maw and Hugh Wood, to name just a few. His advocacy doesn’t end there. He has commissioned many new works, including the three concertos featured on this recent release.

First up on the menu is John Joubert. Born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1927, the composer has lived most of his professional life in the UK. The Cello Concerto of 2012 is the latest in a line of similar works in this genre including those for piano, violin, bassoon and oboe. Amongst his other compositions, he can boast a couple of fine symphonies (review), three operas, oratorios and some chamber music. Considering he was well into his eighties when Op. 171 appeared, one would think it the work of a much younger man. Brimming with self-confidence, it displays a wealth of ingenuity and invention. Scored for a modest-sized chamber orchestra of double woodwind, horns and strings, the work traverses a wide range of emotion and drama. Set in two inter-related eleven minute movements, each is ushered in by the solo cello. Material introduced in the first movement is developed in the second, whose character is more energized and vital. Throughout, the Concerto is suffused with an autumnal and elegiac complexion.

Robert Simpson’s Concerto dates from 1991, and was his final orchestral work. Premiered by Wallfisch in the presence of the composer a year later, it takes the form of an orchestral introduction followed by eleven linked contrasting variations. As well as exhibiting some skilful cello writing, it’s a masterstroke of scoring, with lightness of texture and portrayal of colour being a distinctive feature, offering the soloist a platform for virtuosity. Yet the rhetoric is never empty, but explores a contrasting range of emotion. Variation 8 is scored for orchestra alone and is characterized by energy and bombast. Out of this maelstrom the cello emerges (Var. 9) with a serene melody set against a colourful and lightly-textured backdrop. The effect is spellbinding. At the end the music dies away to nothing.

With his 2011 composition, Christopher Wright isn’t new to this genre, having concertos for oboe, violin and horn already under his belt. The work is dedicated to Wallfisch, and was written in response to the 2011 Summer riots in England. ‘Battle’ and ‘Lament’ are the underlying basic elements. Wright prefaces the score with a quote from Martin Luther King: ‘A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard’. In the music, the composer confronts the challenges of injustice, and the plangent timbre of the cello seems an apt vehicle for its expression. Wallfisch eloquently narrates the peaks and troughs of the drama with consummate artistry. It is a single movement work, divided into three sections. In it, Wright shows a deft hand at orchestration.

The Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff proves an ideal acoustic to showcase the incandescent playing of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. William Boughton elicits sumptuous sound from his players, illuminating the bounteous wealth of these lavish scores with accomplishment. Wallfisch gives persuasive and authoritative accounts, drawing a rich burnished tone from his cello, which is rightly positioned on the left-hand side, so one can gain a concert-hall perspective.

Paul Conway’s illuminating annotations (provided in English only) complement this outstanding release.

Stephen Greenbank

Previous review: Dave Billinge (Recording of the Month)