Britten: Symphony for Cello and Orchestra

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Britten
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; Gloriana Symphonic Suite; Symphony for Cello and Orchestra
PERFORMER: Robert Murray (tenor), Paul Watkins (cello); BBC Philharmonic/Edward Gardner
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10658

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Edward Gardner’s credentials as a Britten conductor were sealed with his inspired run of Peter Grimes at the English National Opera in 2008. Along with the brilliant Sea Interludes, this disc also features the more formal, rarely-heard music of Gloriana and the extraordinary, labyrinthine Cello Symphony. Three elements stand out: firstly, the dramatic intensity of purpose he finds in all pieces; secondly, the sizzling soloistic detail he draws from the BBC Philharmonic and, thirdly, the depth and scope of the recorded sound.

The Sea Interludes live up to the still-incandescent memory of those ENO performances: ‘Sunday Morning’ – which so strongly presages John Adams’s music – crackles with vitality; in ‘Moonlight’ Gardner finds the exact weight and tenderness in the silken lap of moonlit waves, and his ‘Storm’ has a ferocious snarl. The Suite from the opera Gloriana, in which Britten treads a fine line between neo-Tudor pastiche and haunting intimacy, is vivaciously delivered: resplendent brass distinguishes ‘The Tournament’ and the hugely enjoyable ‘Courtly Dances’, for which Gardner draws a gleeful, biting precision from his forces. The Earl of Essex’s ardent Lute Song is given a touching account by tenor Robert Murray. Most impressive is the final movement ‘Gloriana Moritura’, which commences with the Queen’s decision to have Essex executed. Suddenly, we feel the full force of the coruscating drama at the core of this ill-fated opera (which flopped in the face of its uncomprehending ‘starched’ first night audience). I’ve no doubt Gardner could do great things with a staged Gloriana.

The Cello Symphony is a harder nut to crack: from the off, the orchestra shines, with bassoon and brass parts finer and clearer than on any other recording I’ve yet heard. Soloist Paul Watkins perhaps doesn’t bring quite the rhythmic panache to the part as did Pieter Wispelwey in his recent outstanding recording on Onyx, nor is he recorded so forwardly. Watkins also brings a more meditative feel to his sound compared to Rostropovich, the work’s dedicatee, who in his premiere recording is gritty and epic, and compared with Wispelwey who etches a line more sharply or moves the music on with more urgency.

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Yet Britten specifically did not title the work a ‘concerto’, and the great achievement of this recording is its powerful sense of ensemble. Watkins is an interpreter of compelling seriousness, whose musical understanding operates at a profound level. As the cadenza unfolds, and the cello’s broadening arpeggios emerge into the sunlight of the finale, accompanied by a glorious, glistening trumpet, one realises he and Gardner have created not just a great climax, but a truly symphonic collaboration. Helen Wallace