BRITTEN: Cello Symphony; Cello Sonata – Zuill Bailey, cello/Natasha Paremski, p./North Carolina Sym./Grant Llewellyn – Telarc

BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Cello Symphony; Cello Sonata – Zuill Bailey, cello/Natasha Paremski, p./North Carolina Sym./Grant Llewellyn – Telarc [Distr. by Concord Music] (1/14/14) ****:

The music of Benjamin Britten is often very emotive with a texture and melodic contour that owes something to the folk music and sounds of seaside England that people can immediately relate to. There are, however, some of his works which are a bit more dense, more intellectual and which sound never dissonant but sometimes a bit complex and tormented.

To me, some of his concertos, such as that for violin or the Piano Concerto, are examples of this side of Britten. I include the vast, complex and pensive Cello Symphony in this category. The Cello Symphony is one of a series of works written for the great Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, by Britten. Rostropovich was personally responsible for many of the twentieth century’s great cello pieces. For Britten, this work represents one of the first works written for symphony orchestra, itself, after a period dominated by his operas and vocal music. The composer referred to it as a Cello “Symphony” because of his intentional equality and shared dominance between the solo instrument and the orchestra. It is therefore the largest concert work from Britten’s later years and, in four large movements, one of the larger “concertos” for cello ever written.

It is dense and filled with a gravity that the present soloist, the American, Zuill Bailey, gives it in a most attention-getting manner. The third movement, Adagio, is especially commanding. The score throughout contains some very Britten-esque touches including big brass chorales and winds that emulate chattering sea birds. The closing Passacaglia and Allegro begins with cello and trumpet in a dialogue that emulates sea chanty and moments of Peter Grimes, in fact. The interplay between cello and orchestra is at times bold and declamatory and at times tense and weighty. This really is a ‘symphony’ for solo cello and orchestra.

Britten’s Cello Sonata was also written for Rostropovich in 1961 after the composer went to hear the great cellist in the British premiere of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. This commission from Rostropovich resulted in the Cello Symphony, the Three Suites for Solo Cello and two others, all written in a fairly short period. This five-movement work places considerable demands on both players and, in many passages, really serves as a Sonata for both players not just for cello with piano. The Elegia is dark, moody and deep and the finale Moto Perpetuo includes a motive on “DSCH” (D-Eb-C-B using the German note names) in honor of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose music caused the chance meeting between Britten and Rostropovich.

In addition to these two works being a wonderful look at the larger, more brooding side of Britten’s output, this recording is wonderfully engineered by some of the former recording staff of the Telarc label, now operating as independent Five/Four Productions Ltd. and unfortunately limited by the new ownership of Telarc to standard CD release only instead of the former audiophile SACDs.  The performances are also great! Zuill Bailey is an incredible cellist and the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn sounds every bit as good as any other orchestra on record. Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski both absolutely shine in the Sonata. I love all music by Benjamin Britten and find this to be a fabulous recording well worth having. Fans of his music or fans of great cello playing ought to hear this as well!

—Daniel Coombs

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