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Is there a patron saint of serendipity? Perhaps he's a cellist; he was surely somewhere in the Royal Festival Hall in September 1960 when Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto was getting its London premiere. The story's well-known; Shostakovich was there, hed invited Benjamin Britten to sit with him, despite the fact the had never met before, and after the performance, Shostakovich introduced Britten to his soloist, Rostropovich. By the time Britten left, Slava had worked his famous charm on him, and extracted the promise of a new work. The Cello Sonata was duly delivered, then recorded by Rostropovich and Britten in 1961. A friendship was being forged, and so was a whole catalogue of cello works for the Russian. Britten's Cello Symphony was next, and then after hearing Rostropovich play the Bach solo Suites Britten gave him the First Solo Cello Suite as a Christmas gift in 1964, to be followed by two more over the next seven years. Cellists have been marvelling at them ever since.
Typical Britten: not a cellist, yet able to write so idiomatically for the instrument it's as though he'd played it all his life. But somehow these have proved easier for other cellists to claim as their own than, say, the roles written for Peter Pears have for other tenors. True, Slava has an outsized musical personality, but that isn't the key to any of these Suites. Paul Watkins manages to combine cool reflection in the fugue of the Second Suite with the flickering fire of the Scherzo that follows; there's a delicious vocal quality to his playing, with flawless intonation and real sweetness at the top of the cellos' compass, all the way down through the woody grain of the mid-range to a dark, sonorous bass. The Serenata from the First Suite is a masterclass in expressive pizzicato for any student cellist, and the volatility and frailty at the heart of the Third Suite is rendered poignantly, with its sequence of Russian folk songs and variations culminating in the Russian Hymn for the Departed, the Kontakion.
From a technical point of view, Watkins is impeccable: so is the recording, which properly delivers something the actual size of a cello set in a flattering but well-focused ambience.
There's something very British Britten-ish? about the way these Suites manage to be profoundly affecting, while still showing emotional restraint, something I think Paul Watkins feels more instinctively than their dedicatee. I wouldn't be without Rostropovich's recording, but since he only set down the first two, we can buy this newcomer for No. 3, and with a clear conscience.