Solo Cello Suites (Signum, through Ode Records)


English cellist celebrates Britten's centenary in style.




Jamie Walton visited us in 2009, playing Tchaikovsky with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. In conversation, the English cellist was fervent in his opinions, criticising the craze for competitions, tempting players to pursue technical excellence rather than individuality of sound.

He cited Yehudi Menuhin and Alfred Cortot, who may not have carried off awards in their time, but had the poetic genius to make them great artists and, most importantly, channellers of music.

Walton's own gift for communication comes through on his new recording of Britten's Cello Suites, one of the most enterprising releases in the composer's centenary year.

These three works, written between 1964 and 1971 for Mstislav Rostropovich, look to Bach for inspiration. Britten, however, punctuates his fugues and passacaglias with marches and barcarolles where his predecessor had allemandes and sarabandes.

All three Suites offer an array of musical character pieces, as one might expect from the man who made his mark, in 1937, with his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

With a recording that delivers the intimacy of a house concert, Walton offers a veritable gallery of characters. He plucks up images of Spain in the First Suite's Serenata, followed by a ghostly march that affectionately nods to Prokofiev.

These works, which can easily be a succession of isolated movements, have a gripping continuity.

The Declamato that opens the Second Suite is an eloquent karanga that draws you into a 19-minute journey, ending with Walton's brilliant Ciaccona, in which Britten pays homage to the great Bach Chaconne.

The Third Suite, written in 1971, was not performed for three years as Rostropovich had been detained in Russia. Walton catches the intense emotions running close to the surface as Britten incorporated various pieces of Russian music.

A tender Lento leads into an edgy march and, eventually, a Barcarolle that (was a pun intended?) contemplates Bach's very first Prelude.

The emotional climax comes in the most poignant of Britten's Fugues which, in Walton's radiant performance, is the highlight.