Britten: Cello Works

Author: 
Stephen Johnson
Britten Cello Suites Mstislav RostropovichBritten Cello Suites Mstislav Rostropovich
Britten and Shostakovich Sonatas for Cello and PianoBritten and Shostakovich Sonatas for Cello and Piano

BRITTEN: Cello Works

  • Suite No. 1
  • Suite No. 2
  • Sonata for Cello and Piano
  • Sonata for Cello and Piano
  • Ballade
  • Sonata for Cello and Piano

The Britten and Shostakovich sonatas make such an instructive coupling that it's surprising no one has attempted it on record before. It's another case of common features concealing very different souls: in both works suggestive, or even downright wicked humour, masks darker feelings, but while Britten keeps his devil under control, Shostakovich's eventually breaks his bonds and runs riot—the idiot's dance of the finale approaches even the Fourth Symphony in brutal irony.
Even so, when the Shostakovich first appeared it was the apparent classicism—especially in the first two movements—that struck Soviet commentators most, and the new Philips version by Julian Lloyd Webber and John McCabe brings out that quality very convincingly. It isn't just the clarity of articulation and discreet use of rubato: there's also a fine grasp of overall shape: Lloyd Webber's refusal to dawdle in the first movement's second theme means that the conventional exposition repeat sounds far less anachronistic than in Yo-Yo Ma's otherwise excellent performance on CBS—and yet there's no lack of tenderness either.
When it comes to range of expression and tonecolour Lloyd Webber acquits himself well, and the clear and atmospheric recording serves him admirably. Compare his veiled, almost repressed pianissimo in Shostakovich's first movement coda with the angry, cutting forte that opens the scherzo and the slithering glissando harmonics in the trio. From time to time however I did find myself wishing that he'd sustain tone a little longer through phrases, or even held notes: Lloyd Webber's tonal reticence in the opening of the Shostakovich means that the initial theme never quite takes off—at least the first time. Even the relatively undemonstrative Alexander Baillie (Unicorn-Kanchana) achieves more of a lilt here. And in the slow movement and finale I feel the laurels must go to Ma and Emmanuel Ax: Ma's gradual transition from withdrawn, agonized pianissimo to a richly expressive fff in the Largo lingers obstinately in the memory, as does the demonic brilliance of the Ma/Ax finale. Hearing McCabe in the trivial little tune that opens the finale it's difficult to put aside memories of his Haydn, so light and carefee does it sound in comparison, and although there's some spirited playing later on, the comic-melodramatic outburst of bar 181 has rather less bite a pity, for in the earlier movements this new version really is strongly competitive.
In the Britten, Lloyd Webber and McCabe are, I feel, more consistently successful—and it certainly isn't a case of the new version paling beside the classic Rostropovich/Britten. Lloyd Webber and McCabe's subdued humour in the Scherzo-pizzicato works well, and I even slightly prefer Lloyd Webber's portamento harmonics towards the end of the ''Marcia'' to the throwaway manner adopted by Rostropovich. Still, Rostropovich and Britten's characterization in the opening ''Dialogo'' is probably unsurpassable, despite the brave and in no way imitative efforts of the Philips team, and in the ''Elegia'' and the final ''Moto perpetuo'' it is Baillie (Etcetera/Harmonia Mundi) who most nearly approaches the passion and energy of Rostropovich qualities which Lloyd Webber reveals more strongly in the sweeping tune that opens the Prokofiev (a clear improvement on the relentless Dimitri Ferschtman also on Etcetera).
So Rostropovich remains the real heavyweight in the Britten Sonata, and equally in the two suites—don't forget, all three pieces were written for him—and the transfer to CD is remarkably successful: it's difficult to believe the recording of the Sonata is 28 years old and that of the suites nearly 19 years. There is, however, a presentation problem: the movements of the suites aren't listed anywhere—neither in the booklet, on the back of the box or on the disc itself, and we aren't even told how many tracks are allotted to each piece. For the benefit of newcomers to this music, the First Suite has nine tracks, the Second five (one per movement in each case).'

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