Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op.65
Cello Suites – No.1, Op.72; No.2, Op.80; No.3, Op.87
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Stephen Osborne (piano) [Cello Sonata)]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Manze [Cello Symphony]
Recorded 10 & 11 March 2012, City Hall, Candleriggs, Glasgow (Cello Symphony); 19 & 22 December 2011 (Cello Suites, Tema ‘Sacher’) and 21 December 2011 (Cello Sonata), Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: January 2013
CD No: HYPERION
CDA 67941/2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes
This Hyperion collection brings together all of Benjamin Britten’s major works for cello, written for Mstislav Rostropovich, omitting only the recently discovered ‘juvenile’ Cello Sonata in A. Britten’s typically original approach to composition for ‘Slava’ saw him turn to a seldom used format, the solo cello suite, and to write the first and hitherto only Cello Symphony.
This work begins the first disc, and from the outset it is clear Alban Gerhardt and Andrew Manze are keen to start afresh, keeping independent of other recorded versions. It is perhaps the fastest version of the piece, with a first movement that fairly whips through its opening statement, where the cellist’s double stopping is tight and fraught, yet none of the intensity of the piece is lost. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s woodwind- and brass-players, so crucial to a successful interpretation of Cello Symphony, are on terrific form, with colourful interventions pouring out the strife behind Britten’s writing, keeping considerable tension between cello and orchestra. The percussion section also makes forceful interventions. Gerhardt is technically superb in the Presto inquieto scherzo, navigating Britten’s various demands with apparent ease, while his baleful lower register tone with which the solemn Adagio begins feels just right. Manze captures the simmering tension well, and foreboding timpani around 6’30” usher in the cadenza, which itself captures something of the intimacy found in the solo suites. In the finale Manze is instrumental behind a very impressive gathering of emotion from 5’12”, the orchestra carrying all before it as it sweeps the cello line away. It is a performance like this that helps explain why the work has gained in popularity in recent years. Gerhardt’s recording offers new perspectives, and in doing so is a viable alternative to Rostropovich’s own.
The Cello Symphony is followed by the Cello Sonata, Britten’s first commission from Rostropovich. Its particular musical language and abundant melodic content have made it something of a showpiece, but Gerhardt focuses on emotion with insight just as keenly. The ‘Dialogo’ acts as though the cello is trying to escape the attentions of the piano, but both remain firmly locked as though in combat. As the Sonata progresses the two instruments are impossible to prise apart, an indication of the deep understanding that Gerhardt and Steven Osborne enjoy. Osborne’s twinkling intrusions to the Scherzo are particularly well done (he has recorded Britten’s Piano Concerto for Hyperion), while the scope of the finale, the duo taking care not to begin too loudly, is utterly convincing in its build-up.
The Cello Suites are among Britten’s finest achievements, bringing fierce originality to a form that had long lain dormant until the rediscovery of the six J. S. Bach suites earlier in the 20th-century. In the suites Britten explores the technical capabilities of the cello to the extent that the listener can often be tricked into thinking there is more than one instrument playing the music. As he did in the Cello Symphony, Gerhardt opens his mind to the possibility of another approach to the music. In the First Suite there is a delicacy rarely applied to this music, with lyrical insights often found, though authority when needed. The graceful opening is touching in its lyricism, which is also evident in the ‘Lamento’, and there is a feathery lightness to the pizzicatos in the ‘Serenata’. The ‘Marcia’ builds from shadowy harmonics, in doing so capturing an improvisatory quality that can be found throughout the readings.
The ‘Declamato’ with which the Second Suite begins features a beautifully shaped single line, but when the ‘Fuga’ begins rather haltingly, Gerhardt is again at pains to capture the instinctive, spontaneous feel to Britten’s writing. The tension between arco (bowed notes) and pizzicato in the fourth movement Andante is very strong, but there is a peculiar sense of otherworldly loneliness when Gerhardt arrives at the higher register of the ‘Ciacona’. The Third Suite, a set of variations on four Russian themes, which are not heard until the very end, is perhaps the most deeply personal music here. Again Gerhardt avoids the spot-lit performance-practice of some cellists, preferring instead to explore the intimacy at the centre of Britten’s writing. The glissandos in the ‘Recitativo’ are remarkably close to Shostakovich in nature, but the ‘Marcia’ is more schizophrenic in its move from jarring double-stops to soft, elegiac lines. The crowning ‘Passacaglia’, towards which the work is weighted, is lost in thought from the outset, a profound utterance that Gerhardt plays as if it is a continuous contemplation, despite occasional mood-swings.
The addendum is Tema ‘Sacher’, Britten’s final composition for cello from the year of his death, 1976. A result of the friendship between himself, Rostropovich and Paul Sacher, Britten’s brief piece has a theme based on the letters of the Swiss conductor’s surname. Gerhardt plays it with a broad sweep. The differing scale of these pieces is captured ideally by producer Andrew Keener and his recording team, from the bombastic tuttis of the Cello Symphony to the lightest of inflections in the Suites, and the booklet notes from Mervyn Cooke are informative and perceptive. All in all, this is a stellar release.