Britten’s three solo suites for cello is one
of those collections which fits so nicely on a single CD it would seem
almost churlish for a cellist to leave one out. Orientating ourselves
with regard to these new recordings requires a look at some established
versions. Truls Mørk on Virgin Classics (see review
is richly lyrical and expressive and hard to beat as a prospect for
the longer term, inviting us to relish the music rather than challenging
us to admire and respect it. Paul Watkins on the Nimbus label (see review
has quite an expansive view on the works and a lovely touch, though
I don’t prefer him to Mørk for musical depth, and then
of course there is Torlief Thedéen on BIS-CD-446 who has an appealing
sense of communication though not with quite the accuracy of intonation
in double-stopping or clarity of articulation as some. Any recording
is going to have to confront these works’ dedicatee Mstislav Rostropovich
on Decca, and the authority of his performances, filled with Russian
soulfulness and emphatic power makes this a ‘must-have’,
if not automatically making any other recording into an ‘also-ran’.
So much for orientation. Jamie Walton’s recording on the Signum
Classics label is beautifully recorded, and the photos in the booklet
are from a DVD recording which will compliment this DC. The Snape Maltings
acoustic is very good for solo cello, adding to the resonance of the
instrument without casting too much extra personality to the sound.
Walton’s performances are strong without being over-emphatic,
subtle without being coy, and filled with a sense that the performer
is enjoying the music. Listen to the Marcia
in the Suite No.
or the bouncing twangs which inhabit the Bordone
of the same piece and you take away a feel of uplifting pleasure in
the playing which spreads into every corner of the recording. The extra
piece, Tema ‘Sacher’
was Britten’s little contribution
to Paul Sacher’s 70th
birthday celebrations and it’s
a bit of a scrub, so not much of a deciding factor amongst comparisons.
Saeunn Thorsteindottir’s recording on the Centaur label has a
rather close balance which sounds a bit tubby in the mid-lower registers
when compared with Jamie Walton’s recording. This gives the music
a worrying boominess even over expensive headphones, so I can imagine
this being a problem over some systems and in rooms of a certain proportion.
This close-up examination of Thorsteindottir’s playing is fascinating,
though perhaps better taken in smaller doses or with the volume reduced.
She does have a stunning technique and terrific musicality, though the
overall impression is a touch more earnest than Walton. I find it tricky
to make an absolutely accurate value judgment in this case, wishing
that there was just a little more air around the instrument - a greater
chance for the sound to expand, for the expression to sing. If you listen
to the Bordone
movement of the Suite No. 1
notes around the pedal tone remind me more of a double-bass than a cello,
which ain’t really what we’re after.
Between these two releases I’m afraid the choice is a rather simple
one, and if assisting you in my imaginary shop would opt for Jamie Walton
every time. How does he stack up against Rostropovich in the first two
suites? Not at all badly, though Walton’s playing is more ‘air’
bound than Rostropovich, by which I do not mean the latter is ‘earthbound’.
I mean that with Rostropovich you feel his playing in the roots of the
tree which grew the wood which was used to make his instrument, rather
than mostly with the waving of the leaves above. I greatly enjoy Walton’s
at times almost teasing playfulness with Britten’s solo masterpieces,
and in terms of technique and impressive expressive depth he ticks pretty
much all the boxes. For sheer inner luminosity and the feeling you are
getting as much as possible of what Britten wrote, I would however still
take Truls Mørk with me to the desert island.
Britten discography & review index: Cello