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Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 (1963) [35:19]
Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 (1961) [20:45]
Zuill Bailey (cello)
North Carolina Symphony/Grant Llewellyn
Natasha Paremski (piano)
rec. live, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, 8-9 February 2013 (Symphony); Clonick Hall Studio, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio, 19 August 2013 TELARC TEL-34412-02 [56:10]
Once considered a “difficult” work for both performers and listeners, Britten’s Cello Symphony has now come into its own based on the number of recent recordings it has received. Naturally, some of this has to do with the composer’s centenary last year, but the symphony does seem much more approachable now than it did years ago. I had the pleasure of reviewing a new recording of the piece as part of an all-Britten orchestral CD with the BBC Philharmonic and Edward Gardner (Chandos) a while ago. The soloist on that recording was Paul Watkins. There I noted that Watkins and Gardner treated the work as a symphony with the cellist as primus inter pares, who performs his solos eloquently. What made that so special was the way Gardner integrated the orchestra’s role with that of the soloist and brought out all kinds of detail. The standard against which that recording and all subsequent accounts is to be judged is the authoritative account by Mstislav Rostropovich with the composer conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Decca). There Rostropovich’s sheer personality tended to dominate the proceedings. As impressive as Rostropovich is, I found Watkins and Gardner’s more symphonic approach refreshing and still do. If anything, Zuill Bailey on this new recording even dominates the performance more, at least as Telarc has recorded him.
The thing one first notices about the performances is Bailey’s big tone that at times overwhelms everything else. It gives the impression of the microphone being placed very close to the instrument. This is not to say that he covers up the orchestra because Telarc has everything sounding rather close for the most part. It is a typical production for this label with a powerful bass response and very full sound. What is lacking is a little distance between the listener and the performers. I found myself turning down the volume throughout when comparing this with Rostropovich/Britten and Watkins/Gardner. While Bailey clearly relishes the work and has conquered its challenges, his tone as recorded lacks the variety of that of Rostropovich or Watkins. Also, the orchestral dynamics are not as varied as with the others. It may be an overstatement to say that they play loud and louder, but that is the impression the recording gives. A case in point is the timpani solo at the beginning of the third movement where both Britten and Gardner have the timpani more distant in the beginning and gradually increase the dynamics to make a really shattering impact, whereas Grant Llewellyn has the timpani loud from the beginning. Some of this may be due to microphone placement or engineering after the fact. The opening trumpet solo of the Passacaglia finale should be dominant and heard above the cello. It is with both Britten and Gardner; with Llewellyn the cello dominates and partially spoils the effect. On the other hand, there are some wonderful details in the orchestra that come through especially well on the new recording: the woodwinds in the second movement, trombones in the third movement, and superb clarinet and horn in the finale. If I had been at the concert where this performance was recorded I would have been tremendously impressed, as the orchestra-not one of the first-tier orchestras-plays very well, as does the cellist. As a recording left for posterity, though, it leaves something to be desired. I much prefer Zuill Bailey’s account of the Dvořák Concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony that I reviewed here, where there is a more natural balance between cello and orchestra.
The Britten Cello Sonata, unlike the symphony, was recorded in the studio and leaves a totally different impression. Here Zuill Bailey and pianist Natasha Paremski seem a very well matched team. The recorded sound, while close and present, is much better balanced than in the symphony. Comparing this new recording with that of Rostropovich and Britten, I found it to be a close call with their illustrious predecessors. In many ways the interpretations are quite similar, too. Highlights in the new account include the third movement, Elegia, where Bailey is lyrical and romantic with outstandingly beautiful cello tone. Later the duo become very dramatic with those “Russian” stomping chords in the piano played with real intensity. The final, Moto Perpetuo, movement really gives off sparks and lives up to its designation. Overall, I prefer this performance to Gautier Capuçon’s with Frank Braley, as good as that is. As I noted in the review of that recording, we seem to be spoiled for choice in this work.
Accompanying the CD is a glossy booklet with color photos of the musicians. It contains a lucid discussion of the works and their provenance by William Robin with due attention paid to the friendship of Britten and Rostropovich, initially through Shostakovich. In the end, I would hesitate to favour this rather short disc for the Cello Symphony, but the Cello Sonata is another story. Fans of Zuill Bailey will need no urging from me as they follow the progress of one of our leading cellists.