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Benjamin Britten
Cello Symphony, Op. 68, Cello Suite No. 1, Op 72
Peter Wispelwey (cello), Seikyo Kim conducting the Flanders Symphony Orchestra

Review By Max Westler


  Benjamin Britten's greatest orchestral composition is also his most neglected and his least performed. "How is it that this stunning statement is so underperformed and underestimated?" Peter Wispelwey asks in the notes that accompany this performance. Certainly the Cello Symphony doesn't offer the cheeky playfulness of the early concertos for piano and violin, the virtuosity and charm of his justly popular works, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and The Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the single-minded ferocity of his Sinfonia da Requiem.

It is, in other words, a more complex and troubling work both to listen to and perform. Written in 1963, the same year as Britten's War Requiem, it shares some of the bitterness, despair, and turbulence of that earlier work. The first movement is unsettled and unsettling, the second a menacing, restive scherzo. As is often the case in Britten, the adagio that follows is elegiac in mood and the emotional heart of the work. The closing Passacaglia moves from darkness to its joyful, highly charged finale.

Any new recording of this work instantly finds itself competing with the performance by Rostropovitch and Britten. It was Rostropovitch, of course, who inspired all of Britten's works for cello. His performances, partnered on the podium or at the piano by the composer, are as close to definitive as you can get. Their recording of the Cello Symphony is still available on a great-sounding Decca reissue, and cannot be more highly recommended.

Still, Wispelwey's take on this work is very individual and can't be easily dismissed. Whereas Rostropovitch emphasizes the heroic, tragic nature of the work, Wispelwey is both moodier and more bitingly ironic. His marginally slower tempos allow for maximum expressiveness, and every spooky phrase registers decisively. Seikkyo Kim is new to me, but his support is sympathetic and committed. This is also the first time I've heard the Flanders Symphony. Clearly they're a very good provincial orchestra; and though the strings are a little thin sounding, these musicians rise to the occasion and play beyond their limitations. The solo work is especially detailed.

The Cello Suite No. 1 is, not surprisingly, an homage to Bach, a series of very individual character pieces that fully explore the expressive possibilities of Britten's favorite instrument. Here again Wispelwey's performance is distinctive and knowing.

Happily the sound is demonstration-quality. The balance between cello and orchestra is perfectly judged, and every detail registers clearly. If you don't know this music, you should probably try Rostropovitch first. But if you already have that disc, I'd certainly recommend Wispelwey as a second choice for his virtuosity, his understanding, and his devotion to music he clearly loves.





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