Britten: Cello Symphony (CD review)

Also, Cello Sonata. Zuill Bailey, cello; Natasha Paremski, piano; Grant Llewellyn, North Carolina Symphony. Telarc TEL-34412-02.

When you have a piece of music by one of the twentieth-century’s most-beloved composers, performed by one of the masters in his field, and recorded by one of the best companies in the business, it’s a combination hard to resist.

English composer and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68 in 1963, dedicating it to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who premiered the work in 1964 and recorded it for Decca shortly thereafter. Although there have been a number of fine recordings since then, it has been Rostropovich’s disc that has held sway for all these years. Now, cellist Zuill Bailey’s performance with Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony can hold its own among the best of them.

The thing is, however, listeners new to the Cello Symphony and accustomed to Britten’s more-accessible music like The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, the Simple Symphony, the Spring Symphony, the Bridge Variations, the Violin Concerto, even the music from Peter Grimes may find the later Cello Symphony a bit more difficult. It’s generally darker, coarser, more brooding, and more-modern sounding than most of the composer’s earlier pieces. So, the Cello Symphony never quite found the audience that some of Britten’s earlier work did. Still, there’s much to enjoy, and Bailey plays it effectively.

Britten called it a symphony rather than a concerto because he said he wanted the soloist and orchestra to play more equal parts in the proceedings than they would in a concerto, where the cello might dominate. Moreover, in keeping with a symphony, Britten gave the work a traditional four-movement symphonic structure, even though the final two movements do tend to connect with a cadenza link. It would be Britten's last major orchestral work and one he called "the finest thing I've written."

Anyway, Bailey’s sensitive yet unsentimental, no-nonsense style tends to go well with the character of the Cello Symphony. There's a good measure of gloom in Bailey's performance, the deep, mellow tones of the cello complementing the dark depression of the opening movement. And there's an almost overwhelming sense of depression in Bailey's solidly articulated lines. This might not be a true concerto, but Bailey makes us fully aware who's in charge here.

Next, we get an excitable little scherzo, only a few minutes long, filled with playful but still slightly menacing excursions from the cello. Both Britten and Bailey seem to be having a little fun here. A relatively lengthy Adagio follows, poignant and haunting, to be sure, yet still distressful, particularly in Bailey's deeply impassioned reading.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Passacaglia that ends the symphony does so on a confident, almost happy note. This sounds more like the Britten of old, the strings singing splendidly, the cello sounding a note of optimism, and Bailey bringing the whole affair to a rich, full-bodied, highly satisfactory conclusion.

The accompanying Sonata in C major for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 derives from a 1960 meeting Rostropovich had with the composer, during which the cellist pleaded with Britten to write him a sonata. The Sonata is brief, about twenty minutes total, and divided into five movements: Dialogo, Scherzo, Elegia, Marcia, and Moto Perpetua. Pianist Natasha Paremski joins Bailey in a performance that fluctuates between a warm Romanticism and a harsher modernity. The interplay between the two accomplished soloists, especially during the more hushed moments, is quite fetching, and many listeners may find the work more approachable than the Cello Symphony.

Five/Four Productions recorded the Cello Symphony live for Telarc Records at Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina and the Cello Sonata at Clonick Hall Studio, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Ohio, both in 2013.

As we might expect from a live recording, the miking in the Cello Symphony is close, with Bailey's cello dominating the sound field. This provides an extra measure of clarity but at the expense of room ambience and orchestral depth. Nonetheless, the cleanness of the recording, the wide dynamic range, and the strong transient impact compensate somewhat, making for a reasonably satisfying experience. One senses, however, that the audience is always present, not often with outright coughs, wheezes, or rustling of feet or programs but by their very presence, their breathing. Of course, the closeness of the miking also brings out some noises from the instruments and the players that one wouldn't otherwise normally notice, so there's that to consider, too. An unfortunate burst of applause punctuates the end of the performance.

The studio-recorded Sonata projects a more natural sound in terms of instrument positioning and environmental bloom. It makes for a bit more comfortable listening yet can also reflect a healthy dynamic bite.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


  1. A review that is obviously unbiased speaks of you as if giving you a spot in history. Your artistic expression defines you. To your continued growth Zuill.

  2. A review that is obviously unbiased speaks of you as if giving you a space in history. Your artistic expression defines you. To your continued growth artistically Zuill.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa