Britten: Suite for Solo Cello No. 1; Suite for Solo Cello No. 2; Suite for Solo Cello No. 3

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COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi Les nouveaux interprtes
WORKS: Suite for Solo Cello No. 1; Suite for Solo Cello No. 2; Suite for Solo Cello No. 3
PERFORMER: Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: HMN 911670
It’s a rare thing for composers to adopt a new genre once the substance of their achievement has been established. Britten, however, with his three suites for unaccompanied cello, did exactly this, leaving posterity with one of the finest repertoires for the instrument by any 20th-century composer.

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Their begetter in an inspirational sense was Rostropovich, for whom the 1961 Cello Sonata and the Cello Symphony of two years later were also written. Like Britten’s music for Peter Pears, these pieces are tailored to fit the personality of their soloist. Indeed, in the Third Suite, composed in nine days in 1971 but premiered only in 1974, the tribute is explicitly rendered in quotations of Russian folksong and the Orthodox Kontakion.

Rostropovich’s accounts are historically definitive. Steven Isserlis’s reading of the Third Suite will be familiar as the filler for his classic recording of Tavener’s The Protecting Veil. In addition, other cellists, including Alexander Baillie, Robert Cohen and Timothy Hugh, have recorded the complete cycle.

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Jean-Guihen Queyras meets their challenge with lucid, expressive playing. His 17th-century Milanese cello doubtless adds to the welcome Gallic lightness of gesture and timbre. He is equally secure in grasping the firm harmonic draftsmanship of the First Suite’s ‘Canto primo’ as in drawing a unity from the mosaic pattern of the Third. The Second Suite, of 1967, is perhaps the most testing, its form being closest to a sonata. The fugue, a miracle of suggesting many voices, is delivered without blemish, a tribute to Queyras’s playing as a whole. Nicholas Williams