Britten's Cello Suite No. 1: a guide to Britten's cello masterpiece and its best recordings
Inspired by Mstislav Rostropovich, Britten created a pinnacle in the cello repertoire says Jo Talbot, who finds which players scale its heights
Written in 1964, ’67 and ’71, Britten’s three Suites for Solo Cello, amongst the finest works for the instrument, owe their existence to one of the most charismatic and masterful cellists – Mstislav Rostropovich.
How did Rostropovich inspire Britten's three Suites for Solo Cello?
In 1960, Rostropovich was performing the UK premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto in London’s Royal Festival Hall, watched from a box by the Soviet composer himself. Seated next to Shostakovich was Britten, utterly mesmerised by the giant musical personality on stage.
After the concert, Shostakovich told Rostropovich that his ribs were aching: ‘Every time Britten admired something in your playing, he would poke me in the ribs and say “isn’t that simply marvellous?” I am now suffering.’
Britten always wrote with specific performers in mind, and Rostropovich inspired him to write his Cello Sonata and Cello Symphony as well as the Suites.
In his speech on receiving the Aspen Award in 1964, the composer said, ‘Rostropovich was such a gloriously uninhibited musician, with that enormous feeling of generosity you get from the best Russian players. I immediately realised this was a new way to play the cello, in fact a new vital way of playing music.’
The story behind the Suites’ coming into being is amusingly quirky. Rostropovich had never met a real princess, and as he and Britten were scheduled to spend a night at Harewood House – home of the Princess Royal – he decided that he must curtsy. Rostropovich had concocted some bizarre gymnastic movement (his ‘kliksen’) which he was practising.
Britten was utterly alarmed at this spectacle. Over lunch Rostropovich agreed to quell his acrobatics, ‘on one condition: some new works for the cello in exchange for me giving up my kliksen.’ The contract was drawn up on a printed menu. As Rostropovich recalls, Britten complained afterwards, muttering ‘…damned blackmailer’.
The music of Britten's Cello Suite No. 1
Three new Suites duly arrived, the First of which, written in November and December 1964, received its UK premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year. In this work, Britten moulds new with old – a time honoured modus operandi. The traditional strands are structural, with the hymn-like quality of four Cantos serving as a binding ritornello (recurring theme) within the work’s nine movements.
Inevitably, JS 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 ensuing ‘Fuga’ echoes the First Fugue from Book 1 of JSB’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
This is one of the oldest and most tightly organised ways of developing material and, like Bach, Britten constructs the entire movement from the first bars. He also uses a technique from French lutenists called ‘stile brisé’, where one line conveys several parts. In this way, patterns abound throughout, although much of the time invisible under the surface.
Britten reinvents virtuosity, eschewing the flurry of conventional display. For example, in the ‘Canto Primo’ he utilises tricky double-stops which require careful voicing for the melodic line to appear.
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In ‘Serenata’ – a movement which is entirely plucked – the figuration emulates a guitar with left-hand pizzicato punching into the texture, recalling Pierrot playing with the moon: a nod to Debussy’s Cello Sonata perhaps? Natural harmonics are explored in ‘Marcia’, where a bugle-like call alternates with a drummed rhythm played with the wooden back of the bow (col legno) – a gritty style recalling Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale.
In ‘Bordone’, the D drone heard throughout the movement might seem simple, but it requires the performer to alternate seamlessly an open D string and a stopped D drone, whilst at the same time delivering the melodic line. Halfway through, the mood lightens and a lilting melody dominates – maybe a veiled reference to the first movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto? A more obvious virtuosity characterises the following Moto perpetuo organised around semitones, which boasts mesmerisingly rapid passage work that ultimately leads to a blisteringly intense delivery of the ‘Canto Quattro’.
But it is the emotional range – Schubertian in depth – that defines the Suite. The Cantos are by turns anguished, reflective, menacing and fervent. A tremendously powerful expressive line features in the ‘Lamento’ – the instruction piangendo means crying or plaintive, as the melody droops, followed by its inversion. The fluid tonality, exploring the conflict between E and E flat, is incredibly tense, reaching a fragile repose that melts into the subdued ‘Canto Secondo’. Yet there are also hints of humour, heard in the second subject of the ‘Fuga’, and in the ‘Serenata’.
Every note in the score is carefully considered. But that is just the shell of the house. Inside are colourful riches of interior design and poetic nuances to be explored. The performer has to go beyond the notes and find a world of intense emotions, be it reflective or of towering burnished passion.
The best recordings of Britten's Three Suites for Solo Cello
Channel Classics CCS SA 17102
Rostropovich’s legacy lives on not only in his recordings, but also in his detailed fingerings and editing of Britten’s score. When speaking about works written for him, he once said that he would be delighted if someone else played them an hour later. Clearly, he recognised this creative musical legacy, but was aware that to develop, it would need to accommodate new approaches – each score is a road map which a performer has to interpret.
When teaching the Britten to his pupils, Rostropovich said they had to find the emotional core, as it was essential to feel the poetic nature behind the composition. He also laid great emphasis on finding compelling transitions between moods and tempos – one of the major challenges in the Suites is that movements often lead into each other.
These interpretative issues and solutions are what distinguish the finest performances. Both in terms of emotional intensity and in finding the poetry within the score, Pieter Wispelwey’s 2002 recording proves utterly exceptional – and that is within a very distinguished roster of interpretations.
The testing ‘Canto Primo’ is delivered with tremendous power, but the pauses never allow the intensity to diminish. The voicing with the double stops is eloquent and the dynamic range and articulation compelling. Intellect and artistry are in harness in the ‘Fuga’, where Wispelwey etches the contrapuntal lines with clarity whilst allowing fantasy in the semiquaver section. After the baroque-style cadences, the opening subject returns in fiery fury and receives a scorching rendition. As the movement progresses, the fervour recedes, only to vanish before our ears in the closing harmonics.
Wispelwey’s depiction of the ‘Lamento’ is wondrously poignant, connecting the tonally challenged quavers, but magically creating a sense of space. A feeling of exotic excitement infuses his ‘Serenata’ as the guitar-like figuration springs rhythmic surprises.
A mesmerising Spanish intensity remains in the ‘Marcia’ middle section – again characterised by anguished passion before the final harmonics lead into the ‘Canto Terzo’. Here the double stops are flawlessly voiced. The folk-like drone of the ‘Bordone’ with the punctuating left-hand pizzicatos is seamlessly performed before a charged Moto perpetuo leaves you holding onto the edge of your seat. How perfectly ‘Canto Quattro’ assumes its place in the musical invention, and with what emotional heat! This is simply breath-taking playing.
Decca 421 8592
Rostropovich’s first recording, a live performance in Russia, is generally quicker and less comfortable than his second version which, recorded by Decca at Snape Maltings in 1968, offers the stamp of the composer.
Here you sense history in the making, and this has both more depth in terms of expression and also space. Inevitably, having lived with the Suite, it now seems completely under his skin. Rostropovich’s ‘Serenata’ is especially sizzling in dramatic impact and the Moto perpetuo a real tour de force.
Boutin goes beyond the notes in this 2017 recording, bringing exquisite fantasy alongside stunning virtuosity to her interpretation. The opening ‘Canto Primo’ is arresting, and the dynamic choreography and emotional direction are persuasive.
Her ‘Fuga’ is lucid, while the ‘Lamento’ is tender and eloquent. A certain whimsical flavour defines the ‘Serenata’, leading into strongly articulated ‘Marcia’. A reflective emotion defines the second and third Canto in contrast to the Moto perpetuo, which storms by with tangible electricity and sense of fervour in the closing ‘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 intelligently depicted ‘Fuga’ moves from the power in the subject to an almost wistful conclusion with the harmonics. The ensuing ‘Lamento’ is poetically conveyed, leading to the reflective and subdued ‘Canto Secondo’.
A perfect contrast ensues with a fiery ‘Serenata’, followed by a rhythmically unswerving ‘Marcia’. A beautifully voiced ‘Canto Terzo’ leads to an emblazoned Moto perpetuo. A fabulous rendition.