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It is so strange how one's relationship with a piece of music can evolve. This disc has sat on my shelf for more than ten years, played only a handful of times. Respected because of my profound admiration for its author, but unloved because of my chronic failure to comprehend the first few bars of the Cello Symphony, the opening item, which instilled in me a first impression of the whole disc as one of teeth-grinding disquiet. A recent revival in my interest in Britten has caused me to revisit the disc, whereupon I decided to try and get an alternative take on the offending work via the recent Naxos recording, Britten: Cello Symphony. Persistence with the Naxos version of the Cello Symphony led me to some kind of tentative understanding of the thing, whereby I came to conclude that the work was a coded criticism of the Soviet system under which Rostropvich, its dedicatee, was obliged to abide. I could conceive of no other reason that Britten might have penned such a lump of gauche and lopsided distress. As such I came to view the work as one that was morally admirable, but dated and no longer pertinent to our times. Having arrived at this conclusion I thought to give the Britten/Rostropovich version one last listen before consigning it to the nevermore shelf, and then the magic happened. Suddenly this piece just opened up to me like a thousand petalled lotus, and I was falling into it through layer upon layer of depth and detail. Spurious historicist interpretations left far behind, I found myself inside a world of beauty that bought to mind the intricate inner workings of a living cell, or the ebb and flow of lights across a vast night time metropolis. What also was apparent was how, with the exception of a little tape hiss, utterly superior in every way this version was to the recent Naxos one. The Cello playing on the Naxos is smoother, tighter, but rather less characterful and expressive for it. My rather negative estimate of Rostropovich's playing has been completely revised. Britten's command of the orchestra ensures a much richer dynamic interplay between it and the soloist. And the recording is much more vivid despite its age. One is right in there among the instruments which at times are incredibly ferocious.

The second item on the disc is the magnificent Sinfonia da Requiem. It is perhaps a shame that this piece was not placed first on the disc because it would have created an entirely different first impression, and I might have found the impetus to win through to its delights so much earlier. To my mind the Sinfonia da Requiem is one of those near perfect pieces of music, full of beauty, drama and immense power, and immaculate in form and proportion. If there was one piece which I would choose to show a newcomer Britten at his most accessible, and indeed writing at his closest to the English tradition from which he emerged, it would be this piece. Once again the recording and the direction are outstanding. In particular it would seem very special care has been taken to capture the sonic details of the timpani, which figure so prominently in the work. I wonder if there was any other composer who was fortunate enough to preside over the premiere recordings of his work, so many of which even today remain definitive. Being a Requiem the opening and body of the work are suitably sombre and portentous, but the finale breaks through to a radiant beauty that emphatically implies a belief in, or at least a hope for a transcendent afterlife.

The third work on the disc is the Cantata Misericordium, a work for choir and orchestra, with tenor and baritone. This is a continuation of the marvellous collaboration with Pears and Fischer-Dieskau, that began a short while before with the mighty War Requiem. Profound and dramatic, it is another deeply serious work that continues the mood of the previous items.

So, by a circuitous route, this disc has at last been emancipated so as to stand proud and unabashed alongside the rest of my Britten collection.
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This Is Britten's centennial year, and I imagine some other admirers of his music are using the occasion, as I am myself, to fill in gaps in our collections. Verdi and Wagner have centenaries in 2013 also, and we would think it a privilege to have recordings of them conducting their own work. On this disc we have another great master directing performances of his, and that alone should make the disc a must. Add to that the presence of three of the 20th century's greatest executants, and this cd is turning into a double-must.

Britten did not write a great deal for instruments alone, and we have two of his most important works of that kind here. The cello symphony is a late piece, intended if fate had allowed to be the first of a succession of compositions for Rostropovich. The Sinfonia da Requiem is a well-loved favourite from Britten's early career, but we are back to his late period with last item, a Latin cantata taking the New Testament story of the good Samaritan, set by the master for chorus and orchestra with two soloists, Piers no less as the Samaritan and Fischer-Dieskau no less as the traveller left for dead by robbers. Three different top-notch orchestras take part, and the chorus is the chorus of the LSO. The recordings date from the early 1960's. They are very good for their time, very clear and with the solo cello given what I would call just about the right balance with the orchestra. Britten obviously knew his own mind when he called this work a symphony and not a concerto. The solo part sounds difficult, but it is not virtuoso stuff, and the prominence given to the cello should be something like the prominence the viola would get in Berlioz's Harold in Italy.

Those are among the credit-marks to the recording. However I own another version of the Sinfonia da Requiem, I would actually call it better than this, and that is something I would attribute mainly to the recorded sound, which is from the mid-70's. It is by Previn with the LSO, and I have it on an EMI Classics disc together with some Holst. Where Previn scores is in the greater sense of awe in the hushed sections of the outer movements, and I have to suppose that the recorded sound is what is making the difference. As I said above, the sound on the set under review is admirably clear, but in the purely instrumental works it is just a little bit `raw', and in particular the timpani effects are not suitable for listeners with a propensity to migraines. Familiarity breeds tolerance, of course, and after several hearings I was beginning to discount any minor shortcomings in the sound. I might say that closer acquaintance should also help any listeners who find the cello symphony a bit daunting to start with, as I did. It is more than slightly uningratiating, but with patience you should begin to appreciate its power and grandeur, as well as an affinity with Britten's usual style in the last movement, one of his beloved passacaglias.

The cantata is just simply superb. To begin with the text is brilliant - in excellent Latin (with English translation) by one Patrick Wilkinson. The Latin is prose until the final chorus which is in something like the metre of the Stabat Mater (although you could see that more clearly if they had thrown a new line after existant, quando and procreata). The translation is also accurate, so all is not lost with the modern world. The only definite misprint in the Latin is `iste' (singular) for `isti' (plural) going with `latrones'. Perhaps `existant' should be `existent', but I can't make up my mind about that. Back to the business in hand, this piece is given a magnificent performance, and any slight reservations I have with the sound in the instrumental pieces do not apply this time. The chorus is excellent, as you would expect, and the soloists are something more than that. There are two liner-commentaries, the longer for the two instrumental numbers, that for the cantata much shorter and all the better for that.
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on 15 March 2015
Most of Britten's work is very much a challenge. For me, he sounds a like a composer who has discovered the best elements of be-bop and scored them on an orchestral scale. Thus we are entreated to tones and rhythms which a full-scale has never played before, he provides a grand challenge to the performers. The Cello Symphony is such a work; the said instrument dominates the lead as well as providing the very deep grounding of the overall tone of the music. Rostropovitch takes on this grand feat to balance the lead and bass; yet he plays the instrument as if it were generating the sounds, rhythms around it. He bows and plucks with passion and gusto that everything gets lit up in the orchestra. I quite like the plucking parts, there is something quite jazzy and earthy about them.

The Sinfonia da Requiem complements Britten's audacious composition - it sounds bleak and wind-swept; it's not easy-listening but it is extremely rewarding.

The production on this record is superb, particularly in the Cello Symphony, where there is something quite intimate with the lead part but not pervasive as the rest of the orchestra really does matter in this music
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on 17 November 2013
I've gathered many versions of this piece over the last twenty years...and have always found new insights with each new recording (to a greater or lesser extent - the World Premiere recording is hors de concours of course, honorary mentions to Isserlis and Wispelwey, "could try harder" to Ma, though that's more Zinman's fault I think)...but this is the version to which I always return. Not only do we have the privilege of the composer conducting and the dedicatee playing the solo part - not only do we have Decca sound of almost perfect clarity, penetration and balance (long before a certain German record company's '4G' monstrosities pretended to be the ultimate in listening perfection) - not only do we have the ECO on absolutely top form, not just as an orchestral ensemble but as a collection of soloists interplaying with Rostropovich under Britten's sensitive and insightful direction - but to my ears (and brain and heart and soul) I think we have revealed to us something of immense, breathtaking depth, strength and impact.

Read William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech from December 1950 - in it he says "I believe man will not merely endure: he will prevail". That's the feeling I get from this performance of this 20th Century Cello Masterpiece. Try it ;-))
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on 3 April 2014
I am an unskilled reviewer of music, I grew up in an extremely musical family, but the gene passed me by, however, the Cello symphony has always deeply moved me. Rostropovich interprets the sentiment perfectly.
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on 29 May 2013
For those not ardent about Britten, these are two of his more accessible works, wonderfully performed by the composer and Rostropovich, so a classic.
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on 5 May 2014
the Cello Concerto is not often heard and not particularly attractive but this is an authoritative version and the fill-ups are good.
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