Pieter Wispelwey – Britten Cello Symphony & First Cello Suite [Onyx]

0 of 5 stars

Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op.68
Suite No.1 for unaccompanied cello, Op.72

Pieter Wispelwey (cello)

Flanders Symphony Orchestra
Seikyo Kim

Recorded 29 November 2009 in De Singel, Antwerp, Belgium [Cello Symphony] and 21 January 2010 in Doopsgezinde Kerk, Dventer, The Netherlands

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: December 2010
CD No: ONYX 4058
Duration: 64 minutes



Dark and foreboding, this interpretation of Britten’s battle-scarred masterpiece gets straight to the emotional crux of the work. In a brief note for the booklet, Pieter Wispelwey leaves no holds barred in his admiration of Britten’s music, explaining how, for him, the Cello Symphony stands “among the very best in the cello concerto repertoire.”

Despite standing in such high regard, performances and, indeed, recordings of the work remain relatively thin on the ground, indicating that this remains a difficult nut to crack. Emotions should run high throughout in the best performances, and that is most certainly the case with Wispelwey, who overcomes the problems of balancing the orchestra in a work that runs both forces side by side. From the off he backs up his conviction with a series of frenzied double-stopped chords, playing seemingly towards the bridge and using as much of the bow as possible, heightening the already fraught atmosphere.

The Flanders Symphony Orchestra responds in kind, woodwind snapping at the cellist’s heels and violin commentaries incisively delivered, the tension of the live performance fully captured. As the work progresses the recording illustrates both the intimacy of Wispelwey’s dialogue with solo instruments and the heft with which cellist and orchestra attack their tutti passages. The unremittingly tense atmosphere boils over in the Adagio, where the ominous timpani rolls are thrown down, Wispelwey responding with a keenly considered cadenza. Despite the fire-and-brimstone of much of the fast music there is time for repose, found most notably in the nocturnal atmosphere towards the close of the first movement, while the work’s end, when it comes, resolves the tension in vivid D major.

Balancing this feverish account is an equally impressive account of the First Cello Suite, completed by Britten a year after the Cello Symphony, and also composed for Rostropovich. Wispelwey makes abundantly clear the link between the nine short movements, the recurring ‘Canto’ section given a bittersweet lyricism. The clarity of his melodic diction is especially evident in the ‘Lamento’, the high-register playing totally secure. The harmonics and rustlings of the ‘Marcia’ suit Wispelwey’s wide range of colour, while the ‘Bordone’ becomes fractious and nervy, with its sudden interjections over the drone. Compared to his recording for Channel Classics in 2000, speeds are ever so slightly faster, but there is still ample room for the phrasing to breathe.

Whilst the Cello Symphony is for many one of Britten’s most difficult pieces, Pieter Wispelwey’s passionate account is an extremely good place to try and get inside it, while the Suite builds further his reputation as a highly accomplished and dedicated advocate of the composer.

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