Concerto No.2 in G for Cello and Orchestra, Op.126
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Jamie Walton (cello)
Recorded 1 & 2 March 2008 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: January 2009
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS
Duration: 69 minutes
Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and Mstislav Rostropovich were close friends, and this release goes some way to unifying the circumstances in which the three came together. This initial meeting took place at the premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, and Rostropovich, who initially believed Britten to be long since departed, struck up a rapidly deepening friendship with the composer.
The partnership yielded five works by Britten for the cello (including three unaccompanied Suites and a Sonata with piano) and not least the Cello Symphony, which is by far the most substantial. On studying it Rostropovich exclaimed that the piece was “the very top of everything ever written for the cello”. Despite such an accolade, it remains a scarcely recorded piece.
This may be on account of its technical difficulty and with the problems of balance with the orchestra it poses, or the fact that it is not always easy music to listen to. Often greatly troubled, it remains one of Britten’s works most obviously influenced by Mahler and Shostakovich.
Here it receives a fine performance, though questions persist about the balance. This is in part due to the recorded sound, which has the woodwind rooted somewhere towards the back. Moreover, there is a tendency for full orchestral passages to be muffled or to boom. Nonetheless Jamie Walton imposes on the solo part, the weighty statement backed up by full-blooded orchestral strings. More effective still is the Adagio, the two forces making much of the solemn, hymn-like theme as it rises heavenward. In the faster music Walton’s double-stopping is well defined, so that the second-movement scherzo has a skittish character despite its imposing portamento, and the final ‘Passacaglia’ successfully unites the preceding thematic material.
The composition of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto followed the premiere of Cello Symphony by two years, and also received its premiere in Moscow. More recently it has deservedly emerged from the shadow of the First Concerto, and though it has lengthy periods of introspection these have real poignancy and concentrated thought.
Walton finds these qualities in the first movement, and now and then Alexander Briger leans on the lower strings to bring a heavier, almost ponderous sound, one that suggests Shostakovich struggling with his emotions. Walton’s tone is full bodied, but he is once again pitched rather unfairly against the orchestra, the bass drum in particular sounding as if it has been recorded in another room. While this isn’t such a problem when playing soft, the climax of the first movement brings an uncomfortably muffled boom to accompany the cello’s double-stopping.
As the tempo and intensity builds there is considerable tension, though it remains hard to place the sound – woodwinds strangely aloof and the horns appear from an odd direction. As the important, oft-recurring melody takes hold in the finale Walton decides against the kind of rallentando often favoured by other cellists to draw attention to its soaring nature, playing ‘straight down the middle’.
Walton’s technique is beyond reproach, and Briger is a sensitive accompanist. It’s just a shame that the recording, made in the usually-reliable Henry Wood Hall, does not always achieve the right sense of perspective or context for the orchestra.