Britten Cello Symphony

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Benjamin Britten
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Britten Cello Symphony
WORKS: Cello Symphony, Op. 68; Sonata in C for cello and piano, Op. 65; Cello Suites Nos 1-3; Temas ‘sacher’
PERFORMER: Alban Gerhardt (cello); BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze; Steven Osborne (piano)


This is the fastest version of Britten’s Cello Symphony on record. From the opening chords there’s a brisk vigour to Alban Gerhardt’s approach that marks it out as distinctive. He seems hell-bent on grasping this sometimes awkward and ungainly beast by the scruff of its neck and finding something new in its gruff exchanges. Andrew Manze lights up the Brahmsian cross-rhythms in the Passacaglia, and Gerhardt brings a keen sense of forward propulsion and articulacy throughout. His is not a hugely powerful sound in terms of volume, but intensely focused and lithe, and he more than makes up for the beefiness of Daniel Müller-Schott (see following review), for example, with the searing force of his personality. Orchestral bass lines are sharply etched and textures streamlined. Nothing is brash or overdone and the recording captures some exquisite moments of pianissimo, particularly in the skittering Presto. Though Gerhardt brings requisite sense of magical discovery to the largamente in the finale, I miss some of the drama and soul-searching in Pieter Wispelwey’s performance (Onyx). Gerhardt finds tenderness in the more inward soliloquies, but perhaps not the anguish some might hear.

For that, turn to the solo Suites: Gerhardt plunges into their labyrinthine mazes and strikes gold. This is a real tour de force: in such late works Britten reached expressive extremities found nowhere else in his oeuvre. Gerhardt is a fearless guide, blazing a trail with utter conviction, his powerful rhythmic impetus pulling us through each intricate chamber. He transforms them into song cycles, from the chiming poignancy of the first and the tersely worked-though second to the haunted, mocking Schubertian depths of the third. Last but not least his reading of Britten’s Sonata with Steven Osborne is utterly thrilling. A must-have set for all Britten enthusiasts.


Helen Wallace