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Britten: Cello Symphony / Cello Sonata
Zuill Bailey, one of the finest cellists alive today (Classical Net), adds a pair of major works for cello by Benjamin Britten to his impressive array of critically acclaimed albums. The new recording features a live performance of Britten's knotty and profound Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (Op. 68), recorded with the North Carolina Symphony and Conductor Grant Llewellyn, and the substantial, theatrical Sonata in C Major for cello and piano (Op. 65) recorded at Oberlin's brand new state-of-the-art recording studio at Clonick Hall with the electrifying pianist Natasha Paremski.
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The thing is, however, listeners new to the Cello Symphony and accustomed to Britten’s more-accessible music like The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Simple Symphony, the Spring Symphony, the Bridge Variations, the Violin Concerto, even the music from Peter Grimes may find the later Cello Symphony a bit more difficult. It’s generally darker, coarser, more brooding, and more-modern sounding than most of the composer’s earlier pieces. So, the Cello Symphony never quite found the audience that some of Britten’s earlier work did. Still, there’s much to enjoy, and Bailey plays it effectively.
Britten called it a symphony rather than a concerto because he said he wanted the soloist and orchestra to play more equal parts in the proceedings than they would in a concerto, where the cello might dominate. Moreover, in keeping with a symphony, Britten gave the work a traditional four-movement symphonic structure, even though the final two movements do tend to connect with a cadenza link. It would be Britten's last major orchestral work and one he called "the finest thing I've written."
Anyway, Bailey’s sensitive yet unsentimental, no-nonsense style tends to go well with the character of the Cello Symphony. There's a good measure of gloom in Bailey's performance, the deep, mellow tones of the cello complementing the dark depression of the opening movement. And there's an almost overwhelming sense of depression in Bailey's solidly articulated lines. This might not be a true concerto, but Bailey makes us fully aware who's in charge here.
Next, we get an excitable little scherzo, only a few minutes long, filled with playful but still slightly menacing excursions from the cello. Both Britten and Bailey seem to be having a little fun here. A relatively lengthy Adagio follows, poignant and haunting, to be sure, yet still distressful, particularly in Bailey's deeply impassioned reading.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the Passacaglia that ends the symphony does so on a confident, almost happy note. This sounds more like the Britten of old, the strings singing splendidly, the cello sounding a note of optimism, and Bailey bringing the whole affair to a rich, full-bodied, highly satisfactory conclusion.
The accompanying Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 derives from a 1960 meeting Rostropovich had with the composer, during which the cellist pleaded with Britten to write him a sonata. The Sonata is brief, about twenty minutes total, and divided into five movements: Dialogo, Scherzo, Elegia, Marcia, and Moto Perpetua. Pianist Natasha Paremski joins Bailey in a performance that fluctuates between a warm Romanticism and a harsher modernity. The interplay between the two accomplished soloists, especially during the more hushed moments, is quite fetching, and many listeners may find the work more approachable than the Cello Symphony.
As we might expect from a live recording, the miking in the Cello Symphony is close, with Bailey's cello dominating the sound field. This provides an extra measure of clarity but at the expense of room ambience and orchestral depth. Nonetheless, the cleanness of the recording, the wide dynamic range, and the strong transient impact compensate somewhat, making for a reasonably satisfying experience. One senses, however, that the audience is always present, not often with outright coughs, wheezes, or rustling of feet or programs but by their very presence, their breathing. Of course, the closeness of the miking also brings out some noises from the instruments and the players that one wouldn't otherwise normally notice, so there's that to consider, too. An unfortunate burst of applause punctuates the end of the performance. The studio-recorded Sonata projects a more natural sound.
John J. Puccio
Secondly, the composition. I am new to Britten. I found his composition extremely passionate as it sways and flows and surprises.
Third and most importantly, Zuill Bailey's cello playing. Brilliant! Inventive!
I am an NC resident and due to scheduling I missed the performance but now with this CD I have it to enjoy forevermore!
> composer went to hear the great cellist in the British premiere of the
> Shostakovich Cello Concerto. I listened to this CD all day on Wednesday,
> and I was stunned by the glistening, and sometimes contradictory, jazz
> facets within the compositions. The 1977 quote by Charles Ives – “A Good
> Dissonance Like a Man” kept coming to mind, and I found myself smiling
> with a head tilt, and a soft inward laugh…”did I really just hear that?”
> For me the entire CD contains a kind of “cerebral deliciousness”. I have
> to believe the serious listener will share my delight, while the average
> “Audiophile” will discover a new capacity for ear thrills! Thank you Zuill
> for music that educates your fans.