BRITTEN: Violin Concerto,Op. 15. Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68
Rebecca Hirsch, violin; Tim Hugh, cello; BBC Scottish Symphony, Takuo Yuasa, cond.
Naxos 553882 [B] [DDD] TT: 68:05
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Before he left England as a conscientious objector in 1939, bound for the U.S., Britten wrote a piano concerto (Op. 13) followed by another for violin, which the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa introduced on March 28, 1940, with John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. There would not be a third work for solo instrument and orchestra until Symphony for Cello in 1963, the largest of five works composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, who lobbied him as diligently as he had Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Ironically, last summer's edition of Schwann/Opus does not list Slava's version on London 425100 with Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. The Yo-Yo's is there with Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony on Sony; so is Truls Mork's on BIS with Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Symphony; Rafael Wallfisch's on Chandos with Stuart Bedford leading the ECO, and most recently Julian Lloyd Weber in cahoots with Sir Neville Marriner. Now comes this Naxos version from Glasgow by Tim Hugh (principal cellist of the London Symphony), at rock-bottom cost, with an excellent young Japanese conductor, Takuo Yuasa, who is the Scottish BBC's principal guest as well principal guest with the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast.
The Symphony is a broody, inward-looking work almost to the end, in which the timpanist virtually co-stars with the cellista work of cells rather than tunes, the creation of a master composer in total control of his materials, profoundly disquieting despite a sunburst finale. One may not listen often, but each time it grips and will not let go. The Hugh-Yuasa timing is a shade longer than Slava's with Britten, but we're speaking of seconds, not minutes. Ma stretches it rather more, especially the Adagio-Cadenza third movement (11:30 to Slava's 10:34 to Tim Hugh's 9:59). With Slava and the Yo-Yo already part of the permanent collection, Hugh joins their company with challenging distinction.
Rebecca Hirsch is a specialist in contemporary music, from the brief bio in Naxos' notesadmirably comprehensive given the restrictions of space in this instance. Her playing of the violin concerto (which Britten revised in 1958) is easily as fine as Tim Hugh's of the Cello Symphonyrapturous where the music takes flight, introspective where it anticipates the cataclysm about to happen in Europe, always tonally vibrant and rhythmically alert, with dead-center intonation. Yuasa provides a glinting, gorgeous frame, which Naxos has recorded with finesse as well as impact in BBC Scotland's Broadcast House. Recommended at any price, this is a steal at Naxos'list.
Orchestral Britten may be an acquired taste, like tuna sushi, but once experienced it teases the palette. You seldom go away from it whistling tunes, but the man's fastidious and exfoliating art stays with you until the next time you absolutely have to hear his music or suffer withdrawal pains.