Written in 1964, 1967 and 1971, Britten’s three Solo Cello Suites, among the finest works for the instrument, owe their existence to one of the most charismatic and virtuoso cellists – Mstislav Rostropovitch.
How Rostropovitch inspired Britten three suites for cello alone?
In 1960, Rostropovich performed the UK premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall in London, watched from a box by the Soviet composer himself. Sitting next to Shostakovich has been Brittoncompletely mesmerized by the giant musical personality on stage.
After the concert, Shostakovich said Rostropovich that his ribs hurt: “Every time Britten admired something about your playing, he would poke me in the ribs and say ‘isn’t that just wonderful? I suffer now.
Britten always wrote with specific performers in mind, and Rostropovitch inspired him to write his Cello Sonata and Cello Symphony as well as the Suites.
In his speech at the 1964 Aspen Prize, the composer said, “Rostropovich was such a gloriously uninhibited musician, with that enormous sense of generosity that one feels in the best Russian musicians. I immediately realized it was a new way to play the cello, in fact a vital new way to play music.
The story behind the birth of the Suites is fun and quirky. Rostropovich had never met a real princess, and as he and Britten were to spend a night at Harewood House – the home of the Princess Royal – he decided he should curtsey. Rostropovitch had concocted a bizarre gymnastic move (his “kliksen”) which he practiced.
Britten was quite alarmed by this sight. Over lunch, Rostropovitch agreed to suppress his acrobatics, “on one condition: some new cello works in exchange for giving up my kliksen.’ The contract was written on a printed menu. As Rostropovitch recalls, Britten complained afterwards, muttering “…damn blackmailer.”
Music from Britten’s Cello Suite No. 1
Three new sequels duly arrived, the first of which, written in November and December 1964, premiered in the UK at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year. In this work, Britten molds the new with the old – a time honored modus operandi. The traditional strands are structural, with the hymn quality of four Cantos serving as a link refrain (recurring theme) in the nine movements of the work.
Inevitably, J.S. Bach is a powerful influence: the “Canto Primo”, with pauses placed at the end of each phrase, recalls the German composer’s chorales, and the subject of the following “Fuga” echoes the First Fugue from book 1 of JSB Well-tempered keyboard.
It is one of the oldest and most tightly organized ways of developing material and, like Bach, Britten builds the whole movement from the opening bars. He also uses a technique of French lutenists called “broken stile”, where one line conveys several parts. In this way, patterns abound everywhere, although mostly invisible below the surface.
Britten reinvents virtuosity, avoiding the bustle of conventional display. For example, in the ‘Canto Primo’ he uses delicate double-stops that require careful harmonization for the melodic line to appear.
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In ‘Serenata’ – a fully plucked movement – the figuration mimics a guitar with a left hand pizzicato hitting the texture, reminiscent of Pierrot playing with the moon: a nod to Debussy‘s Cello Sonata perhaps? Natural harmonics are explored in ‘Marcia’, where a bugle call alternates with a drum beat played with the wooden back of the bow (legno collar) – a grainy style reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The soldier’s story.
In ‘Bordone’, the D drone heard throughout the movement may sound simple, but it asks the performer to seamlessly alternate an open D string and a stopped D drone, while delivering the melody line. Halfway through, the mood brightens and a lilting melody dominates – perhaps a veiled reference to the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto? A more obvious virtuosity characterizes the following perpetual motorcycle organized around semitones, which boasts incredibly fast passage work that ultimately leads to a blisteringly intense delivery of ‘Canto Quattro’.
But it’s the emotional range – Schubertian in depth – that defines the Suite. The Cantos are by turns anxious, reflective, menacing and fervent. An extremely powerful expressive line features in the ‘Lamento’ – the instruction piangendo means crying or plaintive, when the melody sags, followed by its inversion. The flowing tonality, exploring the conflict between E and E flat, is incredibly tense, reaching a fragile rest that merges into the subdued ‘Canto Secondo’. Yet there are also hints of humor, heard in the second subject of the ‘Fuga’, and in the ‘Serenata’.
Each note of the score is carefully studied. But that’s just the shell of the house. Inside, colorful riches of interior design and poetic nuances to explore. The performer must go beyond the notes and find a world of intense emotions, be it reflection or intense passion.
Britten’s Best Recordings Three suites for solo cello
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Rostropovitch’s legacy lives on not only in his recordings, but also in his detailed fingerings and editing of Britten’s score. Speaking of works written for him, he once said that he would be delighted if someone else played them an hour later. Clearly he recognized this creative musical heritage, but was aware that in order to grow he had to adapt to new approaches – each score is a roadmap for a performer to interpret.
In teaching the Britten to his students, Rostropovitch said they needed to find the emotional core, as it was essential to feel the poetic nature behind the composition. He also placed great emphasis on finding compelling transitions between moods and tempos – one of the main challenges with Suites is that the movements often flow together.
These stakes and solutions of interpretation are what distinguish the most beautiful performances. Both in terms of emotional intensity and poetry in the score, Pieter Wispelwey’s 2002 recording proves quite exceptional – and that in a list of very distinguished performances.
The ‘Canto Primo’ trial comes with tremendous power, but the breaks never allow the intensity to wane. The harmonization with the double stops is eloquent and the dynamic range and articulation convincing. Intellect and artistry come together in the ‘Fuga’, where Wispelwey etches the contrapuntal lines with clarity while allowing for fantasy in the sixteenth note section. After the Baroque-style cadenzas, the opening subject returns in fiery fury and receives a searing rendition. As the movement progresses, the fervor recedes, only to disappear before our ears in the final harmonics.
Wispelwey’s description of the ‘Lamento’ is wonderfully poignant, linking the quavers to the difficult key, but magically creating a sense of space. A sense of exotic excitement pervades his ‘Serenata’ as guitar-like figuration surges rhythmic surprises.
A haunting Spanish intensity remains in the middle section of ‘Marcia’ – again characterized by anguished passion before the final harmonics lead into ‘Canto Terzo’. Here, the double chords are perfectly expressed. The folk drone of the “Bordone” with the punctuated pizzicatos of the left hand is executed transparently before a perpetual motorcycle lets you cling to the edge of your seat. How the “Canto Quattro” fits perfectly into musical invention, and with what emotional warmth! It’s simply a breathtaking game.
Decca 421 8592
Rostropovitch’s first recording, a live performance in Russia, is generally faster and less comfortable than his second version which, recorded by Decca at Snape Maltings in 1968, bears the composer’s imprint.
Here you feel the story in the making, and it has both more depth in terms of expression and also space. Inevitably, having lived with the Suite, he now seems completely in his shoes. Rostropovitch’s “Serenata” is particularly sizzling in its dramatic impact and perpetual motorcycle a real tour de force.
Boutin goes beyond the notes of this 2017 recording, bringing exquisite fantasy alongside astonishing virtuosity in his interpretation. The opening ‘Canto Primo’ is gripping, and the dynamic choreography and emotional direction are compelling.
His ‘Fuga’ is lucid, while the ‘Lamento’ is tender and eloquent. A certain whimsical flavor defines the ‘Serenata’, leading to a strongly articulated ‘Marcia’. A reflective emotion defines the second and third Canto in contrast to the perpetual motorcyclewhich surges with tangible electricity and fervor in the final ‘Canto Quattro’.
Decca 444 1812
This 1994 recording offers both technical and expressive brilliance. The tonal range is incredibly wide in the ‘Canto Primo’, while the cleverly represented ‘Fuga’ moves from the power of the subject to an almost melancholic conclusion with the harmonics. The following ‘Lamento’ is poetically conveyed, leading into the thoughtful and restrained ‘Canto Secondo’.
A perfect contrast ensues with a fiery ‘Serenata’, followed by an unwaveringly rhythmic ‘Marcia’. A beautifully expressed ‘Canto Terzo’ leads to a coat of arms perpetual motorcycle. A fabulous interpretation.