Prokofiev, Britten: Cello Symphonies / Muller-Schott

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PROKOFIEV Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in e, Op. 125. BRITTEN Cello Symphony, op. 68 Jukka-PekkaSaraste, cond; Daniel Müller-Schott (vc); WDR SO Cologne ORFEO 847121 (72:09)

Having already given us Britten’s three cello suites, Daniel Müller-Schott here turns his attention to the composer’s Cello Symphony, putting him in a now four-way contest with Jamie Walton, reviewed by Paul Ingram in 33:1, Pieter Wispelwey, and Johannes Moser, the last two reviewed by me in 34:3 and 35:6, respectively. Britten’s Cello Symphony was not a work with which I was able to claim more than passing acquaintance before I received Pieter Wispelwey’s recording of the piece for review in 34:3. His performance with the Flanders Symphony Orchestra led by Seikyo Kim made a very deep and lasting impression on me. For his part, Moser turned in an equally searing account, though I found the West German Radio Symphony Orchestra Cologne under the direction of Pietari Inkinen not as gripping as the Flanders ensemble for Wispelwey.

Here we have the same West German Radio Symphony Orchestra as on Moser’s Hänssler CD, but under the baton of a different conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The question is: Can Müller-Schott match or perhaps even surpass Wispelwey and Moser’s intensely focused and emotionally draining performances? And if so, can the WDR Orchestra under Saraste match or surpass the same ensemble under Inkinen? The answer to both questions, I believe, is yes.

As the reader may be aware, Daniel Müller-Schott is one of my very favorite cellists among today’s top performing artists, and he doesn’t disappoint in this outstanding account of both works on the disc. Britten and Prokofiev, of course, present quite different musical narratives—the former, harrowing, hectoring, turbulent, truculent, and tragic, and while finally coming to rest on a major triad, not ending happily; the latter, for the most part, outgoing, sunny, and optimistic.

Alternately known as the Sinfonia Concertante, Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, op. 125, should, by all rights, be a darker and more depressing work than it is. It dates, after all, from 1951, a time in the composer’s life after he’d returned to Soviet Russia, was in declining health, and was being criticized by the state’s stoolies for writing music that didn’t promote proletarian values. The piece, however, betrays its past in happier days, for the Symphony Concerto is actually a reworking of a much earlier Cello Concerto Prokofiev had completed in 1938, a score bearing the opus number 58.

The pairing of these two works on disc is a bit unusual—I’m hesitant to say unprecedented—but it works well in that each, in a way, is the other’s alter ego. What they have in common, of course, is that both were dedicated by their respective composers to the celebrated Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. For the Britten, I think I’d still give a very slight edge to Wispelwey, whose performance of the piece is emotionally shattering. But Müller-Schott isn’t far behind, and the Cologne orchestra plays better for Müller-Schott under Saraste than it did for Moser under Inkinen. So, if you like this particular coupling, there’s no reason to hesitate. Recommended.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: ORF-C847121

  • UPC: 4011790847122

  • Label: Orfeo

  • Composer: Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev

  • Conductor: Jukka-Pekka Saraste

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: West German Radio Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Daniel Müller-Schott