Listening to Britten – Tema ‘SACHER’

Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Tema SACHER (5 January 1976, Britten aged 62)

Dedication For Paul Sacher at the invitation of Mstislav Rostropovich
Duration 1′


The beginning of a recent recording of Tema SACHER made by Alban Gerhardt can be heard here.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten may have been losing his health – and had essentially committed his final personal thoughts to music in the String Quartet no.3 – but he continued as a fully functioning composer right up to the end of his life.

The year 1976 was therefore a surprisingly productive one, though by nature the music he was writing became more modest in its dimensions. Mstislav Rostropovich, ever persuasive, wanted him to be part of a multi-composer project to honour the seventieth birthday of Swiss conductor Paul Sacher, who had conducted the premiere of the Cantata Misericordium and showed great political support for the cellist.

Sacher’s name – when interpreted in German – handily translates into the musical notations of Eb (S) – A – C – B natural (H) – E and D (Re). Britten’s contribution to the project was the theme itself. The project was to be a set of variations – but ended up as a series of several short pieces. The full list of works submitted by the other eleven composers is:

Conrad Beck – Für Paul Sacher : Drei Epigramme für Violoncello solo

Berio – Les Mots sont allés

Boulez – Messagesquisse (for 7 cellos)

Dutilleux – Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher

Wolfgang Fortner – Zum Spielen für den 70. Geburtstag : Thema und Variationen

Ginastera – Puneña n° 2

Cristóbal Halffter – Variationen über das Thema eSACHERe

Henze – Capriccio per Paul Sacher

Heinz Holliger – Chaconne

Klaus Huber – Transpositio ad infinitum

Lutosławski – Sacher Variationen


Although this is essentially a footnote to Britten’s output for cello it is nonetheless intriguing, and does not shirk at all on intensity.

Britten makes the theme itself a dramatic fanfare using chords on the cello as a display of raw power. The feeling persists that it is the beginning of a potential Cello Suite no.4, but sadly that notion has to be filed in the box marked ‘what might have been’.

Recordings used

Alban Gerhardt (Hyperion)
Alisa Weilerstein (Decca)

Alban Gerhardt and Alisa Weilerstein give very different performances. Weilerstein really climbs into her version with a frightening intensity, the passages of double stopping right on the edge. Gerhardt has more control, his smoother version more obviously an affectionate tribute.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the version by Thomas Demenga on ECM – given as part of a set that brings together all the work commissioned by Rostropovich for the occasion. Further information can be found here.



Also written in 1976: Dutilleux – Ainsi la nuit

Next up: Lachrymae, Op.48a

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