Listening to Britten – Suite for solo cello no.1, Op.72

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Suite for solo cello no.1, Op.72 (November – December 1964, Britten aged 51)

Dedication For Slava
Duration 22′

1 Canto primo
2 Fuga
3 Lamento
4 Canto secondo
5 Serenata
6 Marcia
7 Canto terzo
8 Bordone
9 Moto perpetuo e Canto quarto


Clips from the first recording of the suite, made by Mstislav Rostropovich in dfgd. With thanks to Decca.

1 Canto primo

2 Fuga

3 Lamento

4 Canto secondo

5 Serenata

6 Marcia

7 Canto terzo

8 Bordone

9 Moto perpetuo e Canto quarto

Background and Critical Reception

When Britten began work on his first Cello Suite in 1964, he was resurrecting a form of composition that had laid dormant since Bach’s six masterful works in the form. Only one twentieth century composer had attempted a substantial work for cello – Kodály’s Solo Cello Sonata a deeply powerful utterance from 1915 that requires the utmost virtuosity.

Rather than follow Bach’s model of a prelude and five dance movements, Britten chose to write specifically once again for the cello of Mstislav Rostropovich, fusing a series of movements whose titles suggest the personality of their dedicatee as much as they do individual dance forms. Mervyn Cooke, in his booklet notes for Alban Gerhardt’s recent recording of the complete works with cello on Hyperion, equates this approach to the descriptive titles used in the Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, where Britten described his teacher in a series of carefully studied portraits.

Writing with a personal focus enabled Britten to explore Rostropovich’s formidable technical command of the cello, playing to his friend’s strengths. Perhaps the most obvious point of learning from Bach was in the use of a fugue, taking the older composer’s talent of giving a single cello several different melodic subjects with the judicious use of rests.

Despite the success of the Symphony for cello and orchestra, Britten appears not to have been very confident in his first edition of the music, which he sent to Rostropovich in Paris in January 1965. He need not have worried, for his by now dear friend was bowled over by the standard of writing for his instrument, and gladly performed it at the Aldeburgh Festival later that year. Rostropovich was characteristically gushing in his praise. ‘Either you are too stupid to understand what a piece you have created or it is simply pretence! You have again produced a masterpiece! The greatest thanks for making me so happy.’

The piece was to unlock a rich torrent of ideas for Britten, who went on to add a second and third suite for Rostropovich in relatively quick succession, restoring the solo cello to a more prominent place in the repertoire as a direct result. Now the solo suites are among Britten’s most programmed pieces, frequently sharing the platform with the equivalent works of Bach.


The first suite does not betray the feelings of insecurity evident in its composer on completion. It is in fact a highly confident statement, that of a man at ease with writing for unaccompanied stringed instruments, as indeed he was when writing the Elegy for solo viola in 1930.

Britten uses a ‘canto’ theme that recurs in different guises throughout the work, and this begins the suite with a bold and forthright statement in the key of G, Britten’s tonal base for crucial parts of the work. The grand opening recalls the stateliness of a Bach prelude, but the musical language is much more obviously Britten, with heavier hints than normal of Russian composers such as Shostakovich, perhaps reflecting Britten’s recent visit to Russia.

Perhaps inevitably the confident air of the Canto is tempered by nocturnal fidgeting. The fugue is wispy, sometimes playful but often feeling as if it is trying to hide. Britten’s exploration of the instrument’s harmonics in the Marcia is brilliantly done, while the pizzicato of the Serenata harks back a little to Debussy. At this point he is again immersed in the music of the night, revisiting the insomniac of the Nocturnal after John Dowland, yet writing music of more obvious structure and direction.

The quality of writing for cello, along with the kaleidoscopic range of colour, is dazzling. There are several passages of music that look and sound initially unplayable can in fact be achieved after much practice or readjustment. Britten is stretching the capabilities of the instrument, giving it a fresh perspective in its solo repertoire, while painting an intimate portrait of his friend. Yet because that friend is Rostropovich you can be sure there is never anything less than total emotional investment in each of the nine movements, which explore a wide range of emotions before arriving at an emphatic ending back in G major, Britten getting the cellist to attack with some relish.

This may be an instrumental work, but it has a vocal profile, and there are moments where the cellist is clearly breathing before the next phrase is played. It is a very potent approach that gives the work a greater human quality, from where it reaps its many rewards.

Recordings used

Mstislav Rostropovich (Decca)
Truls Mørk (Virgin Classics)
Pieter Wispelwey (Onyx Classics)
Alban Gerhardt (Hyperion)
Jamie Walton (Signum Classics)
Philip Higham (Dorian)

It will come as no surprise to learn that Rostropovich’s recording carries all before it with formidable intensity and technique, a real powerhouse of an interpretation but capturing all the subtleties too. Truls Mørk has smother, more controlled lines, but these are incredibly well executed. Jamie Walton plays with plenty of gusto on his new version for Signum, while Pieter Wispelwey’s recording is notable for its incredibly secure high register playing in the Lamento movement.

Alban Gerhardt is superb on Hyperion, notable for his lyrical insights and delicacy, not to mention an improvisatory quality. Philip Higham’s new recording on Dorian, from this year, is also extremely fine.


The following playlist holds interpretations of the Suite for solo cello no.1 by Mstislav Rostropovich, Truls Mørk, Pieter Wispelwey and a version from Alban Gerhardt that predates his Hyperion account of the piece.

Also written in 1964: Dutilleux – Métaboles

Next up: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Op.74

This entry was posted in Chamber music, Listening to Britten, Solo instrument and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listening to Britten – Suite for solo cello no.1, Op.72

  1. Pingback: Listening to Britten – Suite for solo cello no.3, Op.87 | Good Morning Britten

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