Benjamin Britten, Symphony for 'Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68, Sonata for 'Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 65; Zuill Bailey, 'cello (Matteo Gofriller, Venice, 1693, Ex "Mischa Schneider"), NC Symphony, Grant Llewellyn, cond., & Natasha Paremski, piano (unidentified); Telarc TEL 34412-02, © 2014, TT 56:10, $18.98.
The obvious impetus for this recording was the 2013 centennial of the birth of Benjamin Britten, but the recording may well be one of the best results of the English-speaking world's numerous and thoughtful commemorations of the milestone, many of which featured revivals of neglected works. Britten's impetus for composing both works was Mstislav Rostropovich, who was introduced to him by Dmitri Shostakovich at a performance of the latter's first 'cello concerto that was on the same Royal Albert Hall program as Britten's Young People's Guide to the Orchestra on September 21, 1960. The two composers initiated there a friendship that lasted until Britten's death in 1976. Both these works were composed for and dedicated to Rostropovich, who premièred them, the symphony on March 12, 1964, in Moscow with Britten on the podium conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, and the sonata at Aldeburgh in July 1961 with Britten at the piano.
Britten said that he initially conceived the Symphony, his last orchestral work, as a sinfonia concertante, and the role of the 'cello in the work is indeed much more constant and involved than in a concerto, but with numerous occasions for the soloist to demonstrate the virtuosity the score demands. The structure of the work, other than containing four movements, is also not the standard one. Only the opening Allegro maestoso follows that pattern, leading to a Presto inquieto rather than an Adagio or a Scherzo, with the Adagio in the third position, connected with the fourth Passacaglia: Andante allegro by a 'cello cadenza ad libitum. Traditionally, a passacaglia is more common as a movement, occasionally the final one, of a solo instrument or chamber ensemble suite than of a symphonic work, and while it does rise to a concluding climax, it is not a rousing finale.
These are not Romantic-style works with lush, soaring melodies, but rather dark, stark ones. They were written in 1960 (Sonata) and 1963 (Symphony) surrounding the War Requiem, which was composed mostly in 1961 for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral and was premièred on May 30, 1962, and whose soprano solos were written for Galina Vishevskaya, Rostropovich's wife, although the Soviet authorities would not issue her a visa to perform in the première. Consequently, the pacifist Britten's mind, mood, and spirit throughout those years were focused on the effects and after-effects of WW II and war in general – it sets nine poems of Wilfred Owen, a casualty of WW I just days before the Armistice, interspersed with the traditional Latin texts of the Requiem mass – when he was writing these works as well. The War Requiem was one of the most important works of the 20th century, and while these works don't rise to that level, they are certainly significant; Grant Llewellyn is to be commended for selecting them for the NC Symphony's tribute, even though they are not cheerful, happy, upbeat ones, and the applause heard at the conclusion of this live recording made on February 8 and 9, 2013, in the Meymandi Concert Hall of the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, NC, suggests that the audience thought so, too, as well as thinking that this was a superb performance, which it most certainly is. (CVNC's review was of the February 7. 2013, performance in Chapel Hill.)
It strikes this writer that the choice of Russian pianist Natasha Paremski as Zuill Bailey's partner for the Sonata was also eminently appropriate in the contexts of its pairing with the Symphony and of the dedicatee of both works. It was recorded in the Clonick Hall Studio of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, OH (the Telarc label is based in Cleveland, OH), on August 19, 2013. This is a five-movement work, again differing from the standard format, opening with a Dialogo, and concluding with a Moto perpetuo, surrounding a Scherzo – pizzicato, an Elegia, and a Marcia, with only the Scherzo being a common type of sonata movement. The Elegia excepted, this is less dark than the Symphony, and to a certain degree, more modern in style.
I have had occasion twice before to review CDs featuring Zuill Bailey (and I own others as well). I have always been impressed with his performances, and particularly liked the sound of his 'cello. Indeed, in one instance, I compared it and his performance with those of several others in music closer to the time of its creation and found it particularly well-suited and pleasing. It works particularly well in this modern music, too, its deep lower register bringing out the edginess and the pain the music expresses. There are 24 other recordings of the Symphony on the market, including three (two are boxed sets) featuring its dedicatee, one of which (in a two-CD set) is a live recording of its première. There are 37 other recordings of the Sonata on the market, including one (available on a single CD with the Suites for (solo) 'Cello Nos 1 & 2 and also in a five-CD set) by the musicians who premièred it and recorded it shortly thereafter. I have not heard any of these other recordings to be able to make comparisons, but I find this one quite satisfying.
The accompanying booklet is pastel toned, uncommon for this type of product. The four-page (pp. 2-5) program note by William Robin is easy to read, unlike those in many booklets, because it is double-spaced with the text running completely across the page, but it is not very heavy on specific details; many of those in my exposition above are not found in it. It is followed by the bios, all accompanied with color photos that also stretch fully across the page: four pages for Bailey (pp. 6-9), two-and-a-half pages for Llewellyn (pp. 10-12), one page for the NCS (pp. 12-13), and two pages for Paremsky (pp. 14-15). Track listings with timings are on the back cover, sharing the space with a different photo of Bailey, of whom yet another photo dominates the front cover; no photo of Britten anywhere to be found. All this makes the product far more about the artists, who are more fully documented than the music, an inappropriate and unfortunate balance in my view with artistic qualities that, while attractive, do not complement it well.