Walton
Cello Concerto
Bloch
Suite No.1 for solo cello
Ligeti
Sonata for solo cello
Walton
Passacaglia for solo cello
Britten
Cello Suite No.2, Op.80 – Ciaccona
Pieter Wispelwey (cello)

Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Jeffrey Tate

Concerto recorded August 2007 in Sydney Opera House; solo works recorded August 2008 in Onder de Linden, Valthermond, The Netherlands
CD No: ONYX 4042
Duration: 66 minutes
Reviewed: April 2009
Pieter Wispelwey – Walton Cello Concerto In one of his characteristic notes, this time to Gregor Piatigorsky (dedicatee of the Cello Concerto), William Walton wrote “I think it's the best of my three Concertos – but don't tell Jascha” (Heifetz, for whom Walton composed his Violin Concerto). That judgement might be open to debate but it is good to welcome a new recording of this fine work from perhaps an unexpected source and to hear it played with such passion and conviction.
Pieter Wispelwey obviously loves Walton’s Cello Concerto and writes a rather flowery preface in the booklet – his description of the cello entering “like an albatross taking to the air” might have provoked an interesting reaction from the sharp-tongued composer! But it is the Monty Python associations with the word 'albatross' that rather ruins this particular simile! However, it is pleasing to come across an enthusiasm countering the absurd and much-repeated claim that Walton was a 'spent force' after World War Two – the Cello Concerto (first heard in Boston in 1957, Charles Munch conducting) is a far more sophisticated work than its predecessors and deserves to be heard more often than it is.
This recording is taken from performances given in Sydney Opera House with a notably quiet audience and with exemplary balance between soloist and orchestra, a couple of moments aside. Jeffrey Tate, a fine Waltonian, secures orchestral detail that is clear and precise, not least in the tricky central scherzo, in which he doesn't fall into the trap of playing everything fast, loud and brash and forget everything else. Having said that, the first movement seems too slow. Walton writes Moderato. In a recorded performance with the composer conducting, the overall timing is over two minutes less than on this current release.
The slower tempo adopted by Wispelwey and Tate certainly gives the soloist time to sing out the long melodies but in a lethargic manner that allows the underlying, bubbling tension at the heart of pretty much everything Walton wrote to sag. However, the finale (‘Tema ed improvvisazioni’), a theme and variations, is well defined, individual characteristics coming through well – the orchestra is outstanding here and Wispelwey's accounts of the second and fourth variations (in effect dramatic cadenzas) are pretty breathtaking. The striking return of the opening material at the end of the concerto can sometimes sound too much of a surprise, but here is handled in the most moving and effective way – shocking on the one hand but a natural release on the other; beautifully done.
The rest of the disc (recorded in Holland some twelve months later) consists of rather a ragbag assortment of solo pieces. The inclusion of Walton's Passacaglia – written for Rostropovich but “not really for public performance”, the composer thought – makes sense (even though the piece runs out of steam well before the end of its 7 minutes). Maybe the Britten, too, but would the composer have approved of an excerpt? I think not! Quite how Ligeti fits-in is difficult to fathom; nevertheless his Sonata is finely played and is a fascinating glimpse into this remarkable composer’s early music, the Kodály-like melodies sometimes surprisingly dismissed by outbursts of the 'real’ Ligeti trying to get out! Although marvellously played, Bloch’s Suite No.1 sits oddly here, especially following Walton’s Concerto, the work that recommends this release.

 

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