Review: The British Cello / Alexander Baillie / John Thwaites

SOMM Recordings are a joy to behold – an antidote to often tired concert programmes unimaginatively marketed or difficult to attend. Cellist Alexander Baillie and pianist John Thwaites latest release – ‘The British Cello’ – is a case in point.

A carefully-curated track list provides a long list of musical surprises, many of them challenging, and all of them enriching. In addition, SOMM’s recording technique gives an authentic feeling of ‘live’ without the artificial over-produced studio sound normally heard.

This suits the partnership between Baillie and Thwaites, both hugely experienced musicians, who bring a maturity to the sound that younger more earnest players impose.

Additionally, the album plays like a recital – terminology used in the sleeve notes – which makes the listening experience something akin to the most indulgent kind of radio broadcast (just without an audience).

That takes listening to classical music on streaming services beyond merely listening to the work. With a curated list of works performed ‘as live’ that makes the entire CD a musical statement with an underlying narrative. And a personal one at that – using intimate music to construct and capture an equally personal statement as a whole.

Britten’s Cello Sonata in C Major from 1961 is one of the key works in the recital, this borne out of the composer’s fascination or reliance (depends how you look at it) in the melodic opportunities afforded by all manner of major and minor scales.

Dark and disturbing throughout (odd given its written in the major key), the pizzicato second movement is a masterful demonstration of Baillie and Thwaites intuitive partnership. Similarly, the last movement moto perpetetuo is edgy in spirit but graceful in execution.

Richard Rodney Bennett’s Sonata for Cello and Piano from 1991 pushes things a little further – a surprising listen for anyone who’s assumed most of the composer’s output was for film or TV (ie me). Baillie occupies an unapologetically and pleasingly non-conformist work in the way you’d expect given it was written for him.  The interplay between cellist and pianist in the third movement feroce is something to behold – again, a benefit of the sound recording technique that makes SOMM recordings appealingly distinctive.

James MacMillan’s one movement cello sonata is the most challenging work in the line-up but its inclusion illustrates the ongoing appeal an instrument with such a human voice has to so many different composers. Hearing MacMillan after Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett gives us a narrative thread which in turn gives the album as a whole an unequivocal sense of purpose.

Interspersed are some musical gems that tug at the heart strings painting pictures of an island none of us have really seen but we all hanker after, especially now. EJ Moeran’s Prelude from 1941 has an whiff of Londonderry Air about it but lacks the nauseating sentimentality most renditions feature. Frank Bridge’s Elegie is treated to a deeply personal interpretation by Baillie. Kenneth Leighton’s poignant 1949 Elegy forms one of the bookends of the album, bringing a carefully and thoughtfully curated programme to a touching, wistful and ambiguous end.