partnership between Benjamin Britten and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was
arguably second only to that between Britten and tenor Peter Pears (which of
course covered many more years and included all manner of vocal works). Britten
was introduced to Rostropovich in 1960 by Dmitri Shostakovich, after a concert
featuring the latter's First Cello Concerto, and the instant friendship led to
Britten's composing a number of major works, not least the Cello Sonata of 1961
and the Cello Symphony completed in 1964 (in addition to three suites for
unaccompanied cello). Any cellist tackling these works faces competition from
the Britten-Rostropovich recordings made in the ‘60s (and of course still
available on the Decca label) with the composer at the piano for the Sonata and
on the podium for the Symphony with the English Chamber Orchestra. It's a
pleasure to report that Zuill Bailey is more than up to the challenge—as are
pianist Natasha Paremski and (perhaps surprisingly to someone who has never
heard the ensemble) the North Carolina Symphony. As one expects from Telarc, the
sound is superior (the Symphony recorded in Raleigh during a live performance,
the Sonata at Oberlin Conservatory), though not quite exemplary.
The Cello Sonata is a 5-movement work, with a
complex opening movement titled Diologo;
two brief scherzos (the first pizzicato for the cellist, the second a skittery
march) surrounding a suitably somber Elegia;
and a perpetual-motion finale. It's quite a virtuoso piece, calling for the
greatest delicacy in some passages, strong passion in others, rapid-fire strings
of notes and any number of special techniques, including harmonics. Bailey's
abundant technical skills are supported by warmth of tone as well as overall
musicality to make this a performance very worth hearing. The Rostropovich-Britten
recording is of course definitive in its own way, and sonically it's quite
respectable. But the cello's lower notes are much more richly present in Telarc's
recording, and the piano is much more front-and-center—though not quite as
beautifully captured as the cello. Britten was a superb pianist, and the
somewhat unassertive or recessed (though always sensitive) piano sound of the
Decca recording may have been a conscious choice on his and his engineers' part.
But Natasha Paremski claims equal partnership in this work: we are very
definitely hearing a sonata for cello and
piano. The opening movement (notably slower than the original performers'
reading) is very much a dialogue between the two, and the finale crackles with
Britten's Cello Symphony is a masterpiece of Twentieth-Century symphonic music, and the composer's own recording with Rostropovich remains incomparable: there is an electricity about the performance, and a sense of the overall architecture of the piece, that I haven't felt in any other recording. There have been impressive ones, however, including David Zinman leading the Baltimore Symphony with Yo-Yo Ma, and also this one. If I miss the forward thrust and the intense but controlled sense of tragedy and jubilation of Britten's conducting, I do find many beautiful moments in Welsh-born Grant Llewellyn's rendition with the North Carolina Symphony. The woodwinds and lower brass are characterful, blending superbly. Listen, for example, to the agitated dialogue between cello and winds about seven minutes into the first movement, as the development slides into the recapitulation.
On the other hand, the strings don't make much of an impact except for certain moments in the scherzo and their big statement of the finale's main theme (after the trumpet's initial statement), and the timpani player is much less fierce than in Britten's recording, especially in the Adagio. True, the strings don't have a major role in this work, but the recording itself does give the cellist a bigger-than-life prominence and seems to favor the winds over the rest of the orchestra. In Britten's mid-Sixties Decca recording the winds sound less vividly present and "full," but there is a more realistic sense of the orchestra spread as a panorama before us.
In any case, admirers of Zuill Bailey will be satisfied indeed with the capture of his cello sound. It's perhaps a mellower sound than Rostropovich's, lacking a little of the Russian master's cutting edge, but exciting in its virtuosity and commitment to the drama of this complex score.
A bonus for the CD buyer is a thoughtful essay by William Robin on Britten's meeting with Rostropovich and the works themselves. One objection: I have no idea what he means by saying the third-movement cadenza leads into the finale "via a filmic device, a bizarre moment of montage in which a trumpet begins playing a fanfare atop the lone cello." That is, I'm not sure what is either filmic or bizarre about this unforgettable moment in the score, and the trumpet music is not a fanfare but a full-fledged melody.