Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No.2 Op.126; Britten: Cello Symphony Op.68

Jamie Walton; Philarmonia Orchestra/Briger (Signum Classics SIGCD137)

25 November 2008 5 stars

WaltonThere is no disputing that Jamie Walton is a tremendous artist. He is endowed with the type of musicianship that pierces through recordings and demands complete attention. His performance of Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto and Britten's Cello Symphony testifies clearly not only to his uncommon talent, but to a maturity beyond his years.

The choice of programme is striking. These two compositions come from the nineteen-sixties, and while neither Shostakovich nor Britten have ever belonged to the school of angry modernism, writing a concerto—that most romantic of genres—posed serious problems to any composer from the period. The solutions offered by Shostakovich and Britten are the products of two musical minds in the golden years of their maturity, and require not only mastery, but great thoughtfulness, versatility and control.

Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto opens with a slow, brooding movement in which cello and lower strings engage in a dialogue of meandering melodic lines. The sonority clearly quotes the opening of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta—a quotation intensified by the pervasive use of the xylophone. This is significant in that the cello here is an orchestral voice as much as a solo—and is requested to adjust to different roles at incredible speed.

The concerto is dominated by the recurring motif of a repeated falling semitone from the opening of the Largo, and a martial rhythmic figuration from the beginning of the Allegretto. Typically both elements are combined in the brilliantly obsessive last movement. The greatest merit of Walton's playing here is his ability to channel his phenomenal technique into conveying the music’s Janus-faced nature, always turning from lyrical sigh of the cello to the hobbling, grotesque dance that is one of the staples of Shostakovich's poetics.

Britten's Cello Symphony, composed around the same time, and for the very same cellist as the Shostakovich (Mstislav Rostropovich), makes for a well-balanced second half. An advantage on this work is that it treats the orchestra with a grandeur that is mostly eschewed by Shostakovich, thus allowing Alexander Briger to show off the richness of the Philarmonia's orchestral hues.  

The work is thoroughly fragmented structurally—much more so than the Shostakovich; the cello's hiccupping entries in the first movement give way to the frantic switch between motum perpetuum and lyricism in the second movement, while the third movement contrasts the low, majestic bass with the charmed suspension of flourishes in the mid-to-high register.

Yet it is the slight tendency towards stylistic inconsistency—most obvious in the closing Passacaglia—which presents both orchestra and soloist with remarkable hurdles. Unsurprisingly, the Philarmonia and Jamie Walton stand up to the challenge magnificently, celebrating the kaleidoscopic variety with such vigour as to often turn the music's shortcomings into assets.  

All in all, the CD is nothing sort of a triumph for both the Philarmonia and Jamie Walton: superb musicianship is here a great match for the arduous nature of both compositions. When the music runs out, we are left wishing for more of the same—and soon.

By Delia Casadei