By all accounts, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007) was a force of nature. It wasn’t just his cello playing, although he may have been the greatest cellist of the latter 20th century. It wasn’t just his conducting, although he became one of the great interpreters of Russian music, a welcome presence with any of the world’s A-list orchestras. It wasn’t his pianism or his creative work either, even though on many occasions he served, with skill and energy, as his wife Galina Vishnevskaya’s piano accompanist. His compositional studies—with Shostakovich and others—led to his commissioning over a hundred new works for cello from other living composers.
Did we mention that he was a tireless advocate for artistic freedom and human rights? Rostropovich had a tendency to pop up all over the planet, speaking or playing on behalf of embattled individuals and groups. In Russia, he fell in and out of favor so often that Party apparatchiks gave up trying to keep track of his official status. (It would have made an interesting graph, though. No “digital” stair-steps there, but plenty of roller-coaster swoops.)
Not least among Rostropovich’s many achievements was the remarkable artistic and personal bond he forged with Ben Britten. The two first met in 1960, when Rostropovich was in London to introduce Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. Shostakovich invited Britten to join him in his box at the Royal Festival Hall, and when they greeted Rostropovich after the performance, the cellist immediately asked Britten to write him a sonata. (Like I said, a force of nature!) The following summer, Rostropovich played it at the Aldeburgh Festival with Britten at the piano.
Over the years to come, Britten felt drawn ever more closely to Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya. He wrote a significant soprano role in his War Requiem (1961) for Vishnevskaya, then a Cello Symphony (1963) for her husband, then three Suites for Solo Cello (1964, ’67, ’71), and a song cycle, The Poet’s Echo (1965), for Galina and Slava to perform together as singer and pianist.
So it makes perfect sense for us to begin our concluding segment on Britten—especially the Britten who wrote great symphonic and chamber music—with the phenomenal works he wrote for Rostropovich.
Some critics consider the Cello Symphony to be Britten’s finest composition for orchestra. At the very least, it reveals a composer who finally felt secure enough to move toward simplicity at long last. But that will not be apparent to most listeners when they begin their journey into this work. The first movement offers us a protagonist struggling to navigate treacherous orchestral waters—a roiling, murky environment with few trustworthy landmarks. Simple it is not:
And yet soloist and orchestra share the same thematic material, work away at developing their music together and separately. The cellist remains an integral member of his community. In scoring the Cello Symphony, Britten took care to carve out space in the sound spectrum so that the cello’s voice would never be buried in mid-bass grunge—the curse of several other well-known concertos for this instrument. Instead we get bass-drum rolls and burrowing contrabassoon figures below, trumpets and flutes above, and always a dramatic, lively orchestral narrative.
It’s the second movement that goes for simplicity. The cellist, muted and almost inaudible, plays just six notes, three up and three down. He is stopped in his miniscule tracks by a three-note chord from the brass:
And so it goes. The entire movement is based on those three-note patterns and their permutations. Scary stuff. There is a trio-like contrasting section, of which you heard a bit toward the end of that clip. As Michael Steinberg put it, that part “wails rather than scurries.”
I get the feeling that Britten, whether he meant to or not, created a portrait of his friend Slava in this Cello Symphony, much as he had striven to portray his teacher Frank Bridge so much earlier, in his Opus 10. In the first two movements we get Rostropovich the public figure, the communitarian, engaged in constant struggle to do the right thing, to make his voice count. And finally, in the concluding passacaglia, we get another masterful set of variations on a “ground bass” that touches on every other aspect of its dedicatee’s personality—his generosity, larger-than-life persona, passion, humor, energy, curiosity, and actively engaged intellect. That makes for a positive, perfect ending. (Sorry, no clip. You really have to hear the whole thing, as the music moves out of the darkness and toward the light.)
We have been listening to the Cello Symphony as performed by Alban Gerhardt, accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony under Andrew Manze. There is, of course, a fine historic recording featuring Rostropovich, with Britten helming the orchestra. But it has been my principle in these essays to highlight a newer generation of performers, and Gerhardt and company do very well by this music. It’s captured on a Hyperion recording (CDA67941/2) nominated for a Gramophone Award this year, also available as a 24/88.2 Studio Master download from the label. Gerhardt’s glowing tone and the full weight and color of the orchestra are captured to fine effect.
On that set, the Cello Sonata is placed immediately after the Cello Symphony, which works very well, serving as a necessary palate-cleanser after the Symphony’s big textures and gestures. Here’s a hint of its charm: the end of the “scherzo – Pizzicato,” a technical and musical tour de force.
For that performance, Gerhardt was joined by pianist Steven Osborne. The second disc is devoted mainly to the three Cello Suites, for solo cello.
This is the spot where one would typically say something about how Britten’s Cello Suites, obviously inspired by Bach’s works in the genre, show the composer at his most personal, most frankly intimate. And that might not be wrong.
But the truth is more complex. Britten scarcely ever wrote a note that was not personal, although he never issued any musical “intimate letters” à la Janáček. His music can be autobiographical (one critic called it “an unsettling autobiography of illusory consonance”) but something always remains withheld. Perhaps Donald Mitchell said it best:
At the centre of his music there is an intensely solitary and private spirit, a troubled, sometimes even despairing visionary, an artist much haunted by nocturnal imagery . . . a creator preternaturally aware of the destructive appetite (the ever-hungry beast in the jungle) that feeds on innocence, virtue, and grace.
I often feel, when I listen to Britten—especially his untexted music, especially the chamber works—what I felt when I first heard Miles Davis play: He is letting me in on something. But not on everything.
Here is a bit of the first Cello Suite’s first movement, one of three Cantos that permeate the work:
And here is a little of the second movement, a Fuga written so skillfully for a single instrument that it hints at a conversation for two or three voices:
The three Suites contain much more—there are homages to Debussy, to Elgar, to Tchaikovsky (in the guise of his folksong arrangements). Both the Second and Third close with Britten’s favorite formal structure, variations on a ground, a Ciaccona for the Second and a Passacaglia for the Third. Rostropovich expressed his gratitude for these works many times over, and programmed them frequently in recital.
Want more of that elusive spirit of Britten? Try the opening bars of the String Quartet No. 2, Britten’s best effort in that genre:
Britten wrote this quartet in 1945 a few months after the premiere of Peter Grimes. The success of the opera had brought worldwide attention to its composer, but this would have been an intense period in his life in any case. Besides Grimes, he wrote a powerful song collection, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, undoubtedly influenced by his experiences that summer while on tour in Europe with Yehudi Menuhin. The two visited several German concentration camps, including Bergen-Belsen. You can read more about that here.
I became acquainted with the String Quartet No. 2 through a recent recording by the Emperor Quartet, a young British group that has actively promoted music by living composers, including premieres of music by Rebecca Saunders, James MacMillan, and others. (You can hear them playing Jonny Greenwood’s music on the soundtracks of There Will Be Blood and Norwegian Wood.) Their multichannel SACD of Britten (BIS-SACD-1540) includes three of his youthful efforts, including the first recording of a Miniature Suite from 1929. It’s all vibrantly played and recorded, but the prize goes to the 1945 work. That ends, incidentally, in a 19-minute Chacony (another set of variations on a ground) in homage to Henry Purcell (c1659–1695) on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of his death. And here’s the very end of that:
The Emperor Quartet’s next high-rez Britten disc, featuring String Quartets 1 & 3, will be available on these shores in a couple of weeks. Considering how much character and feeling this young group managed to infuse even Britten’s earliest efforts with, this set should be virtually self-recommending.
There’s still more that could be said. You might enjoy Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, op. 2, for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, for instance. There’s a nice recent recording of that by Lisa Batiashvili and friends (Sony Classical 88697285852) with companion works by Mozart and Dohnanyi. So many records, so little time . . .
I do realize that we have ignored—purposefully, it now appears—the enormous bulk of Britten’s vocal and operatic work here, not to mention Curlew River and Noye’s Fludde, which I really wanted to tackle. There’s just no way to do them justice in the space left. I will probably write about a couple of interesting items in the early-October “best of” column, which will take a slightly different form this quarter.
Until then, may good health, peace and prosperity enfold you, and may your turntable/network player/satellite radio/whatever bring you many more joyful moments in music!