Listening to Britten – Suite for solo cello no.2, Op.80

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Suite for solo cello no.2, Op.80 (August 1967, Britten aged 53)

Dedication For Slava
Duration 22′

1 Declamato
2 Fuga
3 Scherzo
4 [untitled}
5 Ciaccona


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

1 Declamato: Largo

2 Fuga: Andante

3 Scherzo: Allegro molto

4 Andante lento

5 Ciaconna: Allegro

Background and Critical Reception

As Mervyn Cooke says, ‘the First Cello Suite appeared to be such an exhaustive compendium of both compositional and string-playing techniques that it was something of a surprise when the composer produced a companion piece in August 1967.’

Rostropovich was once again the dedicatee, part of a bizarre but amusing contract he had made with Britten, whereby he would not erroneously curtsey to the Queen as long as the composer provided him with three more cello works! These were the Suites nos. 1-3, the second of which Rostropovich performed for the first time at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival.

Because of its close proximity to the First Suite the Second gets far less in the way of column inches from Britten commentators. John Bridcut draws attention to the opening phrase, which ‘surely derives from the opening of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.’ Ultimately, for him, ‘it requires virtuosity that both startles and satisfies.’


In many ways the Second Cello Suite is an even more impressive achievement than the first. Whereas the first mastered a number of short dance forms and brought them together in an extremely satisfying, cohesive whole, the Second feels like an even more instinctive piece of work, as if it was composed in one sweep.

There are less movements but they are longer, and the lack of a unifying Canto theme is not a problem. Instead Britten points everything towards the Ciaccona finale, which grows in power to a hugely impressive, multiple stopped finish in a triumphant D major. Before then we have another particularly inventive and incredibly challenging fugue, where Britten gives the aural illusion of several instruments playing at once in the three parts, while the Scherzo and Andante lento are nicely contrasted movements, the latter with a strong, quasi-religious quality to it.

For me this is also the Cello Suite that has the most obvious links to Shostakovich, and indeed at times it reminded me of the intensely private cadenza that takes place during the Cello Concerto no.2. But there is no doubt that this is pure Britten – and having established his solo cello knowhow with the first suite, this is him flexing his muscles still further. It is a handsome success.

Recordings used

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

Rostropovich again possesses a sweeping intensity in this suite that carries all before it. His consistency of tone and power through the legato sections is remarkable. The newer versions are very impressive, too, and Truls Mørk, Jamie Walton and Philip Higham all make strong impressions. Yet one of the strongest versions is from Miklós Perényi as part of a Wigmore Hall Live concert, a powerful experience indeed.


The following playlist holds interpretations of the Suite for solo cello no.2 by Mstislav Rostropovich, Truls Mørk, Timothy Hugh, Jean-Guihen Queyras and the version from Miklós Perényi described above.

Also written in 1967: Lutosławski – Symphony no.2

Next up: The Prodigal Son, Op.81

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

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