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.


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa