BRITTEN Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68. Sonata in C for Cello and Piano, Op. 651. Cello Suites 1-3, opp. 72, 80, 87. Tema ‘Sacher’ • Alban Gerhardt (vc); 1Steven Osborne (pn); Andrew Manze, cond; BBC Scottish SO • HYPERION 67941/2 (2 CDs: 119:23)
Read more This pair of CDs contains all the known music Britten wrote for the cello as solo instrument, all of which was made for Mstislav Rostropovich. It comes, hence, late in the composer’s short life and, as one can hear in, say, the Third Cello Suite and the Third String Quartet, at a time when he was clearly moving onward in his compositional thinking.
Apart from the Sacher theme, the Sonata in C is probably the least-heard piece in this set, though it is not at all the least-recorded. It comes between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the War Requiem, but its immediate impulse was hearing Rostropovich play Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto in 1960. It was quickly written, and was performed by the two of them in July 1961. The sonata is suffused with the melancholy that seems to grow stronger in Britten’s music around this time. Its short second movement strikes me as showing the greatest debt to Shostakovich, but the whole piece demonstrates Britten’s firm control of form and an enviable ability to get a lot out of simple material, in which the piano and cello are true partners. Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne make good conversationalists.
Though Britten had wanted to write a Cello Concerto for Rostropovich, the resulting piece was so large, he once thought of it as more a sinfonia concertante than a concerto. The Symphony for Cello and Orchestra took him longer to write, interrupted as it was by the War Requiem and was not performed until 1963. This is possibly his best-known piece for the cello and it has received many good recordings over the years. Gerhardt plays it faster than I have heard it before, but he doesn’t make it sound rushed. Indeed, this recording sounds the closest I have heard to something like the “sinfonia concertante” Britten had in mind. Oddly, though, it seems slightly less urgent than Peter Wispelwey’s much slower recent traversal (Onyx).
There can be little question that the three solo cello suites (1964, 1968, 1971/74) are the greatest gift to the instrument since those by Bach, and they have challenged cellists from the start. Rostropovich never got around to recording the Third, and felt that he ought to have waited to record the First until he had played it more.
It’s a good thing Alban Gerhardt hasn’t waited to record them. From that very first Bach-like opening, trailing to an elegant pianississimo that still retains its tone, one is immediately taken into the musical argument. Gerhardt shows no fear of the technical challenges in these pieces, such as the wild moto perpetuo of the Third Suite. These are performances that catch us with a teasing, almost wistful, look over the shoulder and yet find the mixture of the playful and the earnest. Gerhardt’s playing is wonderfully nuanced and the honeyed sound of his Gofriller cello is well caught by the recording.
In this Britten year, many of the new recordings arriving have something unusual to add, usually a short piece dropped from some other context or forgotten in some corner or box. Here, we get the Tema ‘Sacher,’ not a celebration of the Austrian torte but of the Swiss conductor and supporter of new music, Paul Sacher. This was originally intended as a contribution to a project Rostropovich devised to honor Sacher’s work for new music, in which several composers would write brief pieces, which would be collected. This did not happen in the end, and the piece remained homeless. I was surprised to discover that ArkivMusic lists no less than five available recordings of it, but none, apparently, by Rostropovich.
Though Rostropovich’s name hangs heavily over these pieces, it is a sign of their essential vigor that so many younger performers are now taking them on and finding new ways to let us hear them. Alban Gerhardt has been performing professionally for over two decades and his performances cover the whole cello repertory. He has also been well received in the pages of this journal in the last decade. As with all performances of great music, these, especially of the suites, will not be the last words we shall hear on the subject, but they are to be heartily welcomed as intelligently thought-out and most excellently played. They go to the top of my list of recommendations.
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68by Benjamin Britten Performer:
Alban Gerhardt (Cello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1963; England
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