Britten: Cello Symphony & Cello Suite No. 1

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

WORKS: Cello Symphony; Cello Suite No. 1
PERFORMER: Pieter Wispelwey (cello); Flanders Symphony Orchestra/Seikyo Kim


Britten’s Cello Symphony has always been something of a monster of the deep: mysterious, forbidding and neglected. To Pieter Wispelwey its opening is ‘a war zone in which a dragon of a pseudo-passacaglia emerges…’ Certainly, the bass-heavy rumblings and harsh moans of both orchestral and solo parts can lead to a quite un-Britten-like murkiness. So it’s thrilling to find a recording that shines a light into its aqueous depths: here is a reading of wonderful precision, colour and vitality.

The Dutch cellist has long been a fine interpreter of the Britten Suites, and he here brings an innate understanding of Britten’s voice, liberating both its power to shock and to sing with virile energy, finesse and a seemingly elastic bow.

The sinister scurrying in the Presto Inquieto is played with panache and highlights its connection with the flutter-tonguing in the ‘Dies Irae’ scherzo of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem; in fact, this is the first recording to reveal to me the strong links between the Cello Symphony and the composer’s only other ‘orchestral’ symphony, written 23 years earlier.

Wispelwey creates a truly mystical hiatus in the cadenza and positively glows with radiance in the noble finale. And what can sound lumpen and portentous in the orchestral part of Rostropovich’s premiere recording is visceral here. 


Britten’s First Suite for Cello is his most poignant, and clings to the heart and ear. Wispelwey, once again, plays with great naturalness, ease and spontaneity. After Bach, only Kodály ever wrote as effectively for solo cello, conjuring from it a resonant feast of chimes and counterpoints. Highly recommended. Helen Wallace