Cellist Alban Gerhardt’s new recordings of Britten’s cello music have just been released on Hyperion. In a refreshingly frank discussion he shared his views of the composer, talked about the demands the cello music places on the performer, and suggested the approach of their dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, is not necessarily the definitive one.
Can you remember your first encounter with Britten?
“I think it was the War Requiem, which I first heard when I was 16 or 17. I was completely blown away by it! Two to three years later I learned the First Cello Suite. I played it in Berlin and it was awful, I don’t think I had learned it properly.”
What are the technical challenges in the cello suites? Is it very difficult music to play?
“Yes, definitely, to play by memory is very difficult with this music. There’s not much logic to it, it almost seems to be improvised. Before I was trying to find a pattern to the music, but there isn’t one! It’s beautiful but not structured as much as Bach might have done, for instance. In the fugues I try to colour the different voices, but it’s difficult, and drove me nuts while learning it!”
Is Britten’s music for cello some of the most expressive music written for the instrument?
“Most definitely. Not at first sight, perhaps – people might find Prokofiev more expressive initially – but this is very deep music, and it can be very dark at times. The last movement of the Cello Symphony has some very touching moments, like someone who doesn’t carry his heart on his sleeve. It’s not only expressive, but inside there is a very great deal of emotion.”
Is the Cello Symphony a difficult piece to interpret?
“It’s all in the score. I found that following Mstislav Rostropovich doesn’t help me to understand what I had in mind. I know that Benjamin Britten was a genius pianist, but I am not quite so sure about how he was as a conductor, and am not so sure how easy it is to talk to such a strong character as Rostropovich and say how you want this or that changed. I don’t think what Rostropovich does in his recording in the first movement is as much in the interest of the piece. Musically I thought it made a lot of sense, what we did, which was to take it quicker and not attack it quite so much.”
Do you get a sense of Rostropovich’s personality as well as Britten’s when you’re playing this music?
“I had a conversation with Andrew Keener about this. There are some very slow, soft movements in the music, which I think are completely atypical to Rostropovich and the way that he played. I wondered if Britten was even trying to teach him other elements to his style, rather than being an expressive Russian bear! The Russian works for Rostropovich are so raw, but in the First Suite, where there is a lot of pizzicato, I was sure Britten tried to teach him to work on the soft side. Maybe that’s why he didn’t play them all that often?”
The Cello Sonata seems like a lot of fun to play.
“I think maybe it is the best sonata for piano and cello ever written! The cello and piano are absolutely on the same level. If you didn’t play the first movement repeats, you could use all the movements as encores, even the slow movement. They are all crowd pleasers, and are brilliantly written. It never gets boring, and is a wonderful piece to play.”
Do you recognise Britten’s influence in the work of any contemporary composers whose works you have played?
“Not for me. I think getting influenced by Britten would mean doing your own thing. He is very much his own composer, and although I might say there are elements of Purcell, he has his own sound language. If I was a composer I would do what he did, and try to find my own voice.”
Other than the cello music, what is your favourite Britten piece?
“The War Requiem is definitely one of the great requiems. I would put it alongside those by Mozart, Verdi, Brahms and Fauré. Among Britten’s other music I just heard the Second String Quartet in a concert, which I was very taken by. Maybe Peter Grimes I would name as one of the most important works. Donald Runnicles is doing it at Deutsche Oper Berlin, with a great cast, and I am going to see it there. I was not so taken by the Purcell realizations, I don’t quite understand what he is doing there.”
Finally, what does Britten mean to you?
“I was talking with my wife about how difficult it is to answer that question! While you are recording the music of a particular composer it means the world, but now it means as much to me as the Bach suites do.”