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.

BBC Proms 2017/21: European Requiem / Beethoven 9 / BBC National Orchestra of Wales

I don’t know much of James MacMillan’s work. But based on a couple of listens to his European Requiem, I think he’s someone whose work I’d like to explore a little more.

But …

Let’s not extract the joy out of proceedings

Radio 3 went to great lengths to contextualise MacMillan’s work before it was performed. A sign of the times no doubt.

I get why the explanation was necessary. Post-EU referendum, we’ve entered a phase where everything has to be clarified in case someone’s misled, offended, or something is misconstrued. It’s important that the BBC maintains its commitment to impartiality. No-one wants the right-wingers thinking the BBC is pedalling an anti-Brexit agenda.

But that contextualisation is at the cost of personal discovery.

God forbid we’d be allowed to be revel in an ambiguity and arrive at a sense of what the music means to us on an individual basis. Do we have to experience a work of art precisely as the composer intended?

European Requiem

I love MacMillan’s writing for chorus. His rich harmonies create an uncompromising wall of sound that is comforting in places, and terrorising in others. Some of the solo lines for Jacques Imbrulgio had a haunting effect, the chant-like melisma conveying a desolate air in places.

MacMillan’s obvious enthusiasm for bold rhythms makes the work accessible on a first listen too, giving the percussion section in the orchestra a central role in contributing to an inclusive end product.

Beethoven 9: underwhelming

In the spirit of aspiring to be objective, it’s probably worth me being transparent. I tend to have higher expectations of a performance if the work is popular. Holst’s Planets Suite is one example, similarly Elgar’s tiresome Enigma Variations. So too Beethoven 9 – the kind of work that demands precision because it is played so very much.

BBC NOW’s playing was efficient and workman-like, but prone to slip-ups in places. I’ve heard a lot of eye-squinting intonation over the past three weeks and Beethoven 9 was in no way the worst demonstration, but there were some surprising moments.

I’m a stickler, I know. And quite rightly, a lot of people for whom this concert was targeted and attended by, wouldn’t be unduly phased. But, if the Proms is to call itself the greatest classical music festival in the world then I do think spot-on intonation at all times should be a deliverable.

There were moments when soloists and ensemble competed with different speeds in the final movement, and I would have liked the slow movement to linger a little more than it did. A lot of the time things felt rather hurried.

But, what really shone was the rich vocal ensemble in the final movement, and in particular the bass soloist. The chorus too, performing without scores, was the boldest evocation of Schiller’s Ode to Joy I’d heard in a long time.

Listen to the concert in full on the BBC Proms website