Walton – Cello Concerto; Passacaglia for solo cello

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COMPOSERS: Walton
LABELS: Onyx
WORKS: Cello Concerto; Passacaglia for solo cello; plus works by Bloch, Britten & Ligeti
PERFORMER: Pieter Wispelwey (cello); Sydney Symphony/Jeffrey Tate
CATALOGUE NO: 4042

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Walton’s Cello Concerto is like a bottle of vintage wine from the composer’s home on the Italian island of Ischia: much underestimated when it appeared in the mid-1950s, its warmth, finesse and wry serenity are qualities that appeal all the more as time passes.

Wispelway’s cello playing, too, has a kind of seasoned timber sound, at once mellow and concentrated, that suits the music to near-perfection. While the Concerto’s first two movements are so surely written that it is almost impossible for them not to succeed when performed by musicians on this level, the finale is a different matter: its original but risky stop-start design, combining the features of slow movement, variations, and first-movement reprise, often seems not to hold together in recordings, where of course the cellist usually records the two unaccompanied solo variations in an empty hall after the orchestra has gone home.

This concert performance, on the contrary, is alive at every point, and has an excellent orchestral contribution (the playing of the principal oboist is a lustrous phenomenon). The few audience coughs are so distant that you hardly notice them.

Wispelwey’s selection of solo cello works on the rest of the CD, too, is so finely played that monotony is never risked for a moment. The singing, open-hearted of manner of Bloch’s Suite, graced with lovely unforced A-string tone, is offset by the tight-reined virtuosity of Ligeti’s remarkable early Sonata.

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Walton’s benignly lyrical Passacaglia and Britten’s edgier Ciaconna, too, sit effectively alongside each other. Malcolm Hayes