Listening to Britten – Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op.68

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op.68 (Autumn 1962 – 3 May 1963, Britten aged 49. Revised March – April 1964)

1 Allegro maestoso
2 Presto inquieto
3 Adagio
4 Passacaglia: Andante allegro

Dedication Mstislav Rostropovich
Duration 34′

Audio clips – using the first recording of the Cello Symphony, with Mstislav Rostropovich (cello) and the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Britten himself. With thanks to Decca

1. Allegro maestoso

2. Presto inquieto

3. Adagio

4. Passacaglia

Background and Critical Reception

For the 1963/64 concert season, Mstislav Rostropovich undertook a mammoth cycle of eleven concerts in Russia that were intended to give a retrospective of the concerto repertoire for the cello. As part of this season he commissioned a number of new works for cello and orchestra – and a new work by Britten was to be among them.

Rostropovich’s biographer Elizabeth Wilson describes the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, as it was provocatively titled, as ‘undoubtedly the greatest single masterpiece to emerge from the cycle…a work of enormous complexity and great originality of structure.’ She sums up the multiple roles the soloist is expected to perform. ‘The symphonic character of the piece influences the various roles that the cello soloist is required to adopt, whether as initiator of dialogue, accompanist, leader of the cello section, or as part of the orchestral texture.’
She also details how the Moscow premiere, conducted by the composer, was enthusiastically received by an audience comprising largely of students and how composers such as Shostakovich were deeply impressed by Britten’s achievement.

The title offers comparisons with a similarly proportioned work for cello and orchestra by Prokofiev, the Sinfonia Concertante, a piece also written for Rostropovich. Indeed that was the title Britten began with, but as John Bridcut describes the work ‘mutated into a Symphony for cello and orchestra, in recognition of the soloist’s role as the orchestra’s partner rather than competitor.’

Arnold Whittall explains that ‘the symphony, while highly personal in texture and timbre, preserves the traditional symphonic features of a thematic and tonal process in which precisely notated and exactly synchronized rhythmic figures play the decisive role.’ The form was something of a revolution for the composer, revealed by Bridcut as ‘Britten’s first orchestral work to be based on sonata principles since his Sinfonia da Requiem almost twenty-five years before.


The Cello Symphony is not an easy piece to grasp, and even in almost a decade of familiarity with the piece I’m still not sure I fully understand it. That it is a powerful piece is beyond doubt, for there are some raw and very meaningful emotions throughout, but its unremitting heaviness means it is not a piece you would necessarily choose to listen to as recreation.

The opening is severe, grating even, with full blooded multiple stopped chords from the soloist. The lower voices of the orchestra simmer in the background, rather like they do in Billy Budd or the Sinfonia da Requiem, which largely shares the same key of D minor. Nor does the music dip, developing themes of barely concealed anger and desperation. Just when things seem to be settling down the orchestral percussion rumbles like gunfire in the background, and the shrill woodwind sound their sirens. To me this is once again the music of the battlefield, as if Britten is still venting his feelings hard on the heels of the War Requiem.

Despite this anger and concentrated feeling there is music of tenderness here too, the cello almost taking up a role with a dual personality – that is until the percussion intervene. The second movement is ghostly, before the deeply passionate utterance of the third, where the cello sings a lament without words. The rumbling drums act as a queue for a powerfully wrought hymn, the cello leading a group of singers in the strings.

There is also no doubt that the personality of Rostropovich exerts a hold on this piece, with its frenzied opening movement statements, but listening to the interpretations of Isserlis and Gerhardt it is possible to form a different opinion, one of greater reverence and thoughtfulness. Where ‘Slava’ is heart on sleeve, these approaches are of a more inquiring mind.

Where I struggle with this piece is in its conclusion, which feels a bit too positive given the mood that has gone before. The trumpet theme ushering in the finale is a bit too perky for belief, but when the cello cottons on to its positive mood so does the rest of the orchestra. The coda, with its woodwind choirs, may resolve everything, in a manner similar to the Sinfonia da Requiem‘s ‘darkness to light’ moment, but it feels a bit bolted on for me.

Personal reservations aside, though, the Cello Symphony is an incredibly concentrated piece, where both cellist and orchestra have to work hard for a successful performance. Perhaps it is not too much to ask that of the listener as well!

Recordings used

Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), English Chamber Orchestra / Benjamin Britten (Decca)
Steven Isserlis (cello), City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox (Virgin Classics)
Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (Hyperion)
Paul Watkins (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner (Chandos)
Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Flanders Symphony Orchestra / Seikyo Kim (Onyx)
Jamie Walton (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / Alexander Briger (Signum Classics)

For a long while there was only one recording available of the Cello Symphony, perhaps reflecting an understandable intimidation on the part of cellists to offer another interpretation alongside that of ‘Slava’. It may be because Rostropovich’s recording with Britten and the English Chamber Orchestra has an almost frightening intensity, with a no holds barred attack from the cellist and some positively scary interventions from the percussion section. Both forces play as if their lives depend on the outcome, and it is certainly the biggest sound I have ever heard from the ECO!

Time has revealed that this is not the only approach, however. In an interview for this blog the cellist Alban Gerhardt offered another view, stating he was ‘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’. This view appears to be carried by Steven Isserlis also, whose version is expansive in tempo but thoughtful as well as powerful, casting a meditative spell in the quieter moments.

There are some excellent recent digital versions, too, from Paul Watkins, Pieter Wispelwey and Jamie Walton. All are imaginatively coupled, too – though perhaps Wispelwey is the more aggressive, Watkins the more mannered and Walton a blend of the two, with some youthful impetuosity.


A number of interpretations can be heard on the following playlist with the versions by Rostropovich and Britten, Isserlis and Hickox and Wispelwey and Kim. Also included are accounts from Yo-Yo Ma and David Zinman, Timothy Hugh and Takuo Yuasa and Truls Mørk with Sir Simon Rattle.

Also written in 1963: Walton – Variations on a theme by Hindemith

Next up: Cantata Misericordium, Op.69

This entry was posted in Listening to Britten, Orchestral, Soloist with orchestra, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op.68

  1. Pingback: Britten on Record: Haydn: Symphony no.45 in F sharp minor, ‘Farewell’ | Good Morning Britten

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