The Strad Issue: January 2009
Musicians: Pieter Wispelwey (cello) Sydney Symphony Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate
Composer: Walton, Bloch, Ligeti, Britten

The main pieces on this disc are linked by date rather than genre, all being products of the 1950s. Pieter Wispelwey writes evocatively in the booklet of recording the Walton concerto live in Sydney Opera House – ‘no patching sessions, every note played with some 2,000 people present’. It’s a ravishing performance. Sydney, he writes, seemed like a metropolitan version of Walton’s Ischia, and the searing tone of the 1760 Guadagnini he plays brilliantly conveys the vivid colours and shimmering heat.
The cello’s first-movement entry is lyrical and flowing, with singing double-stopping passages. The instrument’s gutty lower strings bite expressively in the spiky scherzo and the two solo cadenzas of the theme-and-variations finale enter a new and private sound world more akin to the Bloch that follows, so that the full orchestral crash comes as a particularly brutal shock.

Rather pleasingly, the last three notes of the solo line, relaxing down onto a long low C, are taken up in reverse at the beginning of Bloch’s Bach-inspired Suite, played on the 1698 ‘Magg’ Stradivari on which Wispelwey performs the remainder of the disc. More muted in its lower registers, the Strad’s sound nevertheless shines brightly in the high tessitura passages, and the Canzona is poignantly haunting, as Wispelwey plays to the slight reverberence in the recording acoustic, letting the sound of each phrase die away.

Ligeti’s solo sonata of 1948/53 is a clear forerunner of Britten’s more celebrated unaccompanied works, with the distinctive timbre of its low double-stops, manic Presto and glissando pizzicato chords making it all addictive listening.