Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op.65 (December 1960 – January 1961, Britten aged 47)
5 Moto perpetuo
Dedication for Mstislav Rostropovich
Clips of the first recording of the Cello Sonata, made by Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. With thanks to Decca.
5 Moto perpetuo
Background and Critical Reception
Britten’s mature music for cello is almost entirely due to the technical ability and vibrant personality of one man. Mstislav Rostropovich was introduced to the composer in Autumn 1960, soon after the premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Elizabeth Wilson, in her excellent biography of the Russian cellist, takes up the story:
‘Pivotal to the love affair between the Russian cellist and his British public was the creative relationship that Rostropovich and (his wife Galina) Vishnevskaya developed at this time with Benjamin Britten.’
The two met on 21 September 1960, after a concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Britten had already been digging his friend Shostakovich in the ribs every time he admired the cellist’s playing, which led the Russian composer to complain ‘I am now suffering!’ Shostakovich introduced the two, and the next day they met to discuss Rostropovich’s suggestion that Britten write music for the cello – and a bargain was agreed whereby ‘Slava’, as he was affectionately known, would come to the Aldeburgh Festival.
Britten began the work on holiday in Greece that autumn, and as Wilson details, ‘he was intrigued by Rostropovich’s innovative approach to the instrument and also appreciated his deep musicianship. The five-movement sonata explores various aspects of virtuoso technique to great effect.’
The two famously played through the sonata for the first time at Britten’s flat in St John’s Wood, and after a few whiskies to steady the nerves went through the piece several times. It was the beginning of a performing relationship that was to include now legendary recordings for Decca of Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Bridge and Haydn. The pair then went for dinner, where Britten gave Rostropovich subtle hints on phrasing by humming particular tunes under his breath.
Their first recital together at the Aldeburgh Festival began with Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, then Debussy, unaccompanied Bach and the Cello Sonata premiere itself, which was judged a triumphant success. A recording for Decca followed just over two weeks later.
Reviews of the time interpreted the work as a portrait of ‘Slava’ himself. John Bridcut suggests ‘the questioning at the beginning of the sonata itself reflects perhaps the tentative start of a friendship.’
Britten’s Cello Sonata, his first mature work to bear such a name, is in effect a document of a new friendship. It is as if Britten saw Rostropovich play, made a note of what he admired (by digging Shostakovich in the ribs!) and then went out and wrote for those particular techniques in his own inimitable style.
In addition he takes on board a little of the repertoire he and ‘Slava’ were practising. The Pizzicato 2nd movement draws pronounced parallels to the equivalent Serenade in Debussy’s Sonata, while some of the more intensely lyrical passages recall Schumann and Schubert. Bartók is present, too, in the night music – for this is another piece of Britten’s to continue his preoccupation with music depicting the small hours.
The Cello Sonata is great fun to watch, as it taxes the performers’ abilities in many different disciplines – and not just the cello either. The pianist has to be right on top of their game, especially in the helter-skelter finale, which careers along like a runaway train, flying past all kinds of musical scenery until it crashes in to the C major buffers at the end.
Yet this is also clearly a piece written for friends to play; the title of the first movement, Dialogo, indicates that, but at each turn the instruments are complementing each other, with bursts of lyrical intensity, mischievous asides and whispers, and the odd technical wizardry, never written in that way for its own sake, but always musical.
For these reasons it has become one of the twentieth century’s most popular recital pieces for cello, a great test of a duo – and in this case the opening salvo of a partnership that was to bear many more musical fruits in the next fifteen years.
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Benjamin Britten (piano) (Decca)
Alban Gerhardt (cello), Steven Osborne (piano) (Hyperion)
Jamie Walton (cello), Daniel Grimwood (piano) (Signum Classics)
Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Dejan Lazic (piano) (Channel Classics)
Moray Welsh (cello), John Lenehan (piano) (EMI Classics)
Many a cellist has recorded the Britten Cello Sonata, but all aspire to the first recording, which is in my view justifiably regarded as one of the best chamber music records ever made. Such is the anticipation and instinct between Rostropovich and Britten it is difficult to spot the joins, the two fully knowledgeable of each other’s parts. ‘Slava’ expresses himself with fierce lyricism, while Britten takes the lead in the more percussive passages.
There are many recent digital recordings that stand up extremely well though. Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne have a terrific chemistry in their version, brilliantly recorded by Hyperion, while the established partnership of Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood are on terrific form as part of their Rostropovich-themed album, including sonatas by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Pieter Wispelwey has a tendency to be quite wild in this music, but such excesses definitely suit the Cello Sonata in his high voltage reading with Dejan Lazic. Meanwhile Moray Welsh and John Lenehan offer a punchy account on EMI.
This playlist brings together the recordings by Rostropovich and Britten and Walton and Grimwood described above, along with other versions from Gautier Capucon and Frank Braley, Moray Welsh and John Lenehan (billed here as ‘Soloists of the LSO’) and an account from Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax.
Also written in 1961: Shostakovich – Symphony no.12 D minor, Op. 112 “The Year 1917′
Next up: Corpus Christi Carol