Listening to Britten – Suite for solo cello no.3, Op.87

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Suite for solo cello no.3, Op.87 (23 February – 3 March 1971, Britten aged 57)

Dedication For Slava
Duration 22′

1 Introduzione
2 Marcia
3 Canto
4 Barcarola
5 Dialogo
6 Fuga
7 Recitativo
8 Moto perpetuo
9 Passacaglia


Clips from a recent recording of the suite made by Alban Gerhardt. With thanks to Hyperion.

1 Introduzione

2 Marcia

3 Canto

4 Barcarola

5 Dialogo

6 Fuga

7 Recitativo

8 Moto perpetuo

9 Passacaglia

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s third suite for solo cello, again written for Mstislav Rostropovich, carries the most personal dedication in the form of four traditional Russian themes, which the composer takes as the basis for a set of variations.

In a sense Britten is bringing together his love of folk song arrangement and his increasingly close attachments with Russia, for by the time of composition he had been to the country on numerous occasions, and now enjoyed a close friendship with three of its most prominent figures – Rostropovich, his wife Galina Vishnevskaya and Shostakovich.

Three of the four themes utilised in the suite are folk songs, as arranged by Tchaikovsky – Under the apple tree, Autumn and The grey eagle. The fourth, which comes to the fore in a final passacaglia that lasts almost as long as all the other sections put together, is a hymn tune, Kontakion.

The suite was completed in 1971 but restrictions imposed on Rostropovich by the Russian authorities meant he was not able to get to Aldeburgh as planned to give the first performance. He finally gave the first performance at the Snape Maltings on December 21, 1974.

Matthew Barley spoke to this blog about what he finds so affecting about the suite in comparison to Britten’s other works for the instrument. ‘The First Cello Suite is more popular and showy, but the Third is so powerful and moving, and it ends with the incredible Hymn for the Dead, the homage to Rostropovich. It’s a very special composition.’


Even when compared to the first two solo cello suites, Britten’s third cello suite has an intensity of thought and emotion that reaches new heights. In keeping with his late works there does not seem to be a single redundant note, the work progressing with a sense of firm inevitability from variation to variation, heading all the while towards the plain and deeply moving statement of the four folksongs, a perfection of the form he had been cultivating through the Lachrymae and Nocturnal.

The suite has a distracted start, with the cellist’s ruminations lost in thought over the pizzicato open ‘C’ string, which tolls like a distant bell. The headings of each section imply an Italian flavour – prompting thoughts of Death in Venice – but instead are deeply Russian in their appearance, existing alongside the spirit of Shostakovich. The beginning of the Barcarola appears to quote directly from the prelude of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite no.1 in G major, though this could just be a coincidence, for Britten was consciously looking to plot a different course in his solo cello works.

Once again the cellist is asked to employ a number of different performing techniques, but whereas in the first suite these were notable for their technical demands, here it feels as if the emotion has completely taken over, the need to characterise the understanding between Britten and Rostropovich the primary goal. A good example of this is the deeply profound Fuga. Yet the friendship with Shostakovich also appears to exert a strong influence here, with Britten often reflecting the language of his fellow composer in thought and mood.

The lead in to the Passacaglia is a case in point, and feels morose and heavy hearted, but what follows is truly momentous, an utterly compelling and extremely emotional passage of music. As we move to the bare but heavily affecting renditions of the Russian themes the suite culminates in a broad, double stopped passage where the hymn tune is played with passionate beauty, after which the music subsides to a thoughtful silence. No words can be said after this – and it is little wonder Rostropovich felt unable to play it after Britten’s death.

Recordings used

Robert Cohen (Decca)
Matthew Barley (Signum Classics)
Truls Mørk (Virgin Classics)
Alban Gerhardt (Hyperion)
Jamie Walton (Signum Classics)
Philip Higham (Dorian)

The absence of a recording from Rostropovich is one of the few genuine gaps in the otherwise massively comprehensive Britten discography. The cellist felt unable to play the suite after Britten’s death for the strength of feeling that it generated, and so left a number of live performances but no recording.

There is however an extensive discography of the work. Steven Isserlis presents a characteristically thoughtful and intense reading to complement his famous recording of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, concentrating more perhaps on the restrained early sections that contain so many of Britten’s private thoughts. Alban Gerhardt gets a lot of feeling from these sections too, for Hyperion.

Matthew Barley took the third suite as a starting point for his year-long pilgrimage in honour of the composer, Around Britten. A video summarising this can be watched here:

His own recording reflects his total involvement in the music, with keen attention to pacing and detail, as well as a deeply passionate final passacaglia.

Other recordings released in Britten’s centenary year include two very fine examples from Jamie Walton and Philip Higham, the former having also shot an extremely interesting DVD about the suites.
In the absence of a Rostropovich recording Decca turned to Robert Cohen to fill the gap in their complete works collection, which he does with a powerful reading.



Also written in 1971: Shostakovich – Symphony No.15 in A major, Op. 141

Next up: The National Anthem

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