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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op. 68 (1963, rev.1964) [31:29]
Sonata for cello and piano in C, Op. 65 (1960/61) [20:39]
Cello Suite No. 1, Op. 72 (1964) [24:38]
Cello Suite No. 2, Op. 80 (1967) [20:01]
Cello Suite No. 3, Op. 87 (1971) [20:57]
Tema ‘Sacher’ (1976) [1:34]
Alban Gerhardt (cello)
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze
rec. 10-11 March 2012, City Hall, Candleriggs, Glasgow (Cello Symphony);
19, 22 December 2011 (Cello Suites, Tema ‘Sacher’), 21 December 2011 (Sonata), Henry Wood Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67941/2 [52:10 + 67:13]

This double CD set marks the centenary of Britten's birth in 1913. The six works chart the sixteen year (1960 to 1976) friendship between Britten and Rostropovich; known to his friends as ‘Slava’.
 
Berlin-born Alban Gerhardt the cello soloist in these six cello works has recorded several discs for Hyperion. In March 2011 at the Manchester Bridgewater Hall I reported on Gerhardt performing in concert with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena. In Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme Gerhardt’s playing seemed effortless, radiating such calm assurance. Baroque violinist turned conductor Andrew Manze is quickly gaining a reputation as a champion of British music. His performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies 4-6 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the 2012 BBC Proms garnered significant acclaim. He certainly knows how to conduct Britten. I have fond memories of attending a concert at the Munich Philharmonie in May 2010 with Manze conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of British music that included Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Sinfonia da Requiem and The Young Person’s Guide. Scottish concert pianist Steven Osborne has been recording for Hyperion for many years. He was in splendid form when I attended his performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 19 with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester in October 2012.
 
Britten and Rostropovich met in London in September 1960 at the Royal Festival Hall for the London première of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. The great Soviet Russian composer was there in person. The result was the Sonata for cello and piano in C, Op 65 that Rostropovich premièred with Britten at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival. Gerhardt and Osborne prove sympathetic partners in this emotional roller-coaster ride which deserves to be played more often in the recital hall.
 
Next for Rostropovich was the Cello Symphony from 1963 just a year after Britten completed the War Requiem. It was Rostropovich who gave the first performance under Britten’s baton with the Moscow Philharmonic at the Moscow Conservatory in 1964. The Cello Symphony is, in effect, a cello concerto, reflecting a journey between the extremes of despair and joy. This is a generally dense rather weighty and dark-hued score. It doesn’t easily reveal its virtues. Some years ago when I was new to the Cello Symphony I required several plays before becoming enamoured of Britten’s dense writing but it was certainly worth the effort. Gerhardt’s command of the writing is palpable. He plays throughout with drama, strength and conviction. The orchestra provides incisive playing and the end result is most persuasive.
 
Between 1964 and 1971 Britten wrote a series of three substantial solo Cello Suites all dedicated and premièred by Rostropovich. With around sixty-five minutes of music in total these are intensely personal and introspective scores. They provide a stern series of technical and emotional tests for the soloist. With a reasonable degree of concentration there is certainly enjoyment to be had from these scores. These performances are testimony to Gerhardt’s judicious preparation. Communicating a strong sense of intimacy one feels the deep concentration in this compelling playing.
 
The final work written for Rostropovich on the disc is Tema Sacher for solo cello. It lasts here just over a minute and half. Britten was one of twelve composers invited by Rostropovich to write a short work for solo cello to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Paul Sacher the Swiss conductor and music patron. The theme of the score is based on Sacher’s name in musical notation. This is by no means just a clever academic exercise. It has a degree of emotional substance although sadly it is all over in what seems like a flash.
 
Gerhardt is admirable throughout providing expressive and concentrated performances enhanced by high quality sonics from the Hyperion engineers.
 
Michael Cookson

Britten discography & review index


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