In his accompanying artist's note for this disc, Pieter Wispelwey exclaims: "What a formidable powerhouse of a piece, this Cello Symphony! The opening scene practically a war zone in which a dragon of a pseudo-passacaglia emerges, exuberant feasting in a ciaccona, a haunted scherzo and a big roar of an Adagio". It's colourful, enticing imagery, even for readers whose musical knowledge doesn't stretch to passacaglias, and it certainly sums up this extraordinary work. Wispelwey gets full marks for written eloquence. Full marks too for repertoire choice, particularly as he's paired it with Britten's solo Cello Suite No.1, making this disc the sort of recording which sends expectant prickles up ones neck even before the play button has been pressed.
Britten's Cello Symphony is effectively a cello concerto. It was written in 1963, the year after his cataclysmic War Requiem. Listening to its opening, it feels very much as though some of the pacifist anger from the previous years' work hadn't quite burnt out. In fact, if one wanted to attach a programmatic reading onto Britten's music - admittedly a dangerous and self-indulgent act at any time - the Symphony feels, as its movements progress, like a sort of journey from darkness to light. A gruelling journey too: the final passacaglia's triumphant close is tinged as much with exhausted relief as with joy. Britten wrote it for his friend Mstislav Rostropovich, and it was a perfect fit for the great Russian cellist's luminous, hard-edged, occasionally violent tone. Consequently, it's a toughie for subsequent cellists.
Wispelwey has risen to the challenge, though. His tone's capacity for dark malevolence, shown to such effect on his previous disc of Walton's Cello Concerto, is exercised here to the full. Perhaps there are moments when he sounds a bit polite - where a harder-edged, passionate roughness would be a better fit than his smoother delivery. However, that's personal taste, and there are no such quibbles with his interpretation of Suite No.1. This is bursting with contemplative beauty, instinctive phrasing, full-toned radiance, and sure technique.