Britten: Cello Symphony/Cello Sonata

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Telarc
WORKS: Cello Symphony; Cello Sonata in C
PERFORMER: Zuill Bailey (cello); Natasha Paremski (piano); North Carolina Symphony/Grant Llewellyn


Britten’s Cello Symphony has been one of his least-performed works, despite the composer’s comment that it was ‘the finest thing I’ve written’. So the centenary-inspired outpouring of Cello Symphonies on disc is welcome. It’s a reflection of the number of ‘big beasts’ out in the cello firmament prepared to do battle, and in this live recording Zuill Bailey proves himself equal to the task.

The cello is placed far forward in the recording, so it feels more concerto than symphony (in contrast to the recent fine Paul Watkins/Edward Gardner version on Chandos, for example) but this is never at the expense of clarity and balance in the orchestra, ably handled by Grant Llewellyn. Bailey brings the requisite heft and grit to the first and third movements, and his Scherzo goes at an impressive lick, even if its opening, scampering figure is a little swallowed.

In the brooding Adagio, Bailey sounds as if he’s dragging the orchestra behind him with exceptionally heavy tread, phantom wind calls trailing behind. It’s here we begin to sense a certain deliberate four-square quality to the performance, which prevents the beginning of the Passacaglia achieving that magical sense of enlightenment Rostropovich finds. While spaciousness and poise mark Bailey’s long cadenza, he loses some momentum in the Passacaglia’s tortuous double-stopped passages, with too many repeated figures not quite lifting off the page. This is not the case in the Sonata’s ‘Dialogo’, where Bailey captures perfectly that sense of leaning in to a veiled, unhurried conversation with pianist Natasha Paremski. They dispatch the Scherzo and ‘Marcia’ with aplomb; it’s only in the dirge-like ‘Elegia’ that we keenly miss the extraordinary range of timbres in Britten’s own playing. An impressive issue, though the competition is stiff. For a more exciting tour de force in both works, try Alban Gerhardt’s recent set with Steven Osborne (Hyperion CDA 67941/2).


Helen Wallace