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This review is from: Britten: Cello Symphony, Sinfonia da Requiem (Audio CD)
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.