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Hyperion Records

CDA67941/2 - Britten: Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites
Valerian Glory at Aldeburgh (2012) by Mita Higton

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: January 2013
Total duration: 119 minutes 21 seconds


'Given Gerhardt's fine Britten credentials, this makes a recommendable package: performances are well judged, with clean-cut rhythms and good attention to detail' (Gramophone)

'Gerhardt plunges into the labyrinthine mazes of the solo suites and strikes gold. This is a real tour de force: in such late works Britten reached expressive extremities found nowhere else in his oeuvre. Gerhardt is a fearless guide, blazing a trail with utter conviction, his powerful rhythmic impetus pulling us through each intricate chamber … last but not least his reading of Britten's Sonata with Steven Osborne is utterly thrilling. A must-have set for all Britten enthusiasts' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This poetic, virtuosic player makes a powerful case for the three unaccompanied Cello Suites' (The Observer)

'There is every reason to explore this set with Alban Gerhardt. He is fully in command of the technical subtleties, detailed expressive facets and structural scope of the Cello Symphony, and Andrew Manze … has the measure of the music's spectrum of deep reflectiveness and dramatic force. Strongly and sensitively partnered by Steven Osborne, Gerhardt gives a wonderfully vital performance of the Cello Sonata, alert to the cunning interplay between the two instruments and to the rhythmic wiliness that characterises the opening movement … in the solo suites … Gerhardt's playing is supple, richly coloured and articulated with the utmost finesse. These performances demonstrate a mature affinity with Britten's personal style in an important and compelling body of music' (The Daily Telegraph)

'The listener is struck by the remarkable variety and richness of sound the composer conjures up from a single instrument, rather than any feeling of limitation. Alban Gerhardt's performances underline this impresssion: his tone is gorgeously opulent and he revels in the composer's aural inventiveness … Gerhardt produces a stunning range of colour in 'Bordone' and uncannily transforms his cello into a guitar in 'Serenata' … the brilliance of the cellist's playing, as well as his vision of the work, is more than matched by the outstanding pianism of Steven Osborne. The Cello Symphony is one of Britten's supreme masterpieces' (International Record Review)

'Here we have Britten at the height of his powers, inspired by the charismatic personality of one of the 20th century's greatest musicians … the Cello Symphony is less frequently performed than the more accessible earlier concertos, but Gerhardt makes one of the strongest cases for it on disc … he truly comes into his own in the solo suites' (The Sunday Times)

'This is a brilliant anthology, wonderfully performed and beautifully recorded' (

Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites
Declamato: Largo  [3'22]
Fuga: Andante  [4'10]
Andante lento  [4'31]
Marcia: Allegro  [1'38]
Canto: Con moto  [1'15]
Barcarola: Lento  [1'30]

A major release at the start of Britten’s anniversary celebrations. Britten’s long friendship with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was one of the most inspiring and fruitful musical collaborations in history. It led directly to the composition of some of the most important works for cello of the twentieth century.

Alban Gerhardt, among the greatest living exponents of the instrument, performs this body of works in its entirety. In the Cello Sonata he is partnered by Steven Osborne, whose Hyperion recording of Britten’s Piano Concerto received a Gramophone Award. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze join Gerhardt for the Cello Symphony, Britten’s only substantial piece of absolute symphonic music.

The astonishing music for solo cello—the three suites plus the miniature Tema ‘Sacher’—completes the set. The suites are repositories of a huge number of compositional and string-playing techniques, acknowledging their debt to Bach but also demonstrating all the imagination and emotional scope for which the composer is revered.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
No British composer of the twentieth century engaged more consistently and fruitfully with Soviet musicians than Benjamin Britten, whose outspokenly positive views on musical life behind the Iron Curtain during the 1960s—at the height of the Cold War—did much to foster Anglo-Soviet cultural co-operation, while at the same time annoying hard-line anti-Soviet agitators in the UK. Amongst his Russian friends was the celebrated pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who appeared at the Aldeburgh Festival from 1964 onwards and often performed duets with Britten, and concertos under his baton: in 1970 Richter recorded Britten’s long-neglected Piano Concerto (1938) at Snape Maltings. Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich also became good friends with Britten during the 1960s, dedicating his Symphony No 14 to the British composer (who conducted its first UK performance at Snape in 1970) and visiting Aldeburgh for himself in 1972.

At the heart of Britten’s Russian circle was the indefatigable cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, both of whom inspired the composer to write a substantial body of music for them, and who also generously hosted Britten and his partner Peter Pears during their various visits to Moscow, Leningrad and Armenia. Britten composed the solo soprano part in the War Requiem for Vishnevskaya, who was famously refused permission by the Soviet authorities to appear in the work’s momentous premiere at Coventry Cathedral in 1962. (Britten had to deal personally with the notorious Soviet culture minister Ekaterina Furtseva on this and every other occasion he attempted to arrange for his Russian friends to perform in the UK.) In the summer of 1965, while holidaying with the Rostropoviches in the Soviet Union, Britten composed his Pushkin song cycle The Poet’s Echo (‘Ekho poeta’) for their combined talents—Rostropovich being an accomplished pianist in addition to a virtuoso cellist. It is, however, the stream of extraordinary cello works Britten composed for Rostropovich between 1960 and 1971 (which the cellist liked to refer to as his ‘lifebelts’) that forms the most remarkable legacy from these Anglo-Soviet encounters, not merely on account of the music’s idiosyncratic brilliance but also because Britten was at this stage in his career otherwise showing relatively little interest in the composition of instrumental music, being heavily committed to operatic and other vocal projects.

Rostropovich was an energetic champion of contemporary music, and attempted to persuade dozens of composers to write new works for the cello. He was well aware that the resulting compositions were not always great, but once quipped that if one in ten of all the new works he had solicited proved to be significant, the effort would have been worthwhile. One indisputable masterpiece for which he was directly responsible was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, the first UK performance of which he gave at London’s Royal Festival Hall in September 1960. On this occasion, Shostakovich was present in the audience, and Britten was invited to sit in the composer’s box. Overwhelmed by Rostropovich’s playing, Britten readily acquiesced to the cellist’s immediate demand—on meeting him for the first time after the performance—that he write a new piece for him to play. Britten responded with the Sonata in C, planned during a trip to Greece in the autumn of 1960 and completed over the following Christmas. On 30 January, he sent Rostropovich a letter to say that the score was being sent out to him, and commented on the unusual pizzicato writing: ‘The pizzicato movement (II) will amuse you; I hope it is possible! The little phrases are of course only plucked once—although when they descend you pluck with the left hand. I’d like, if possible, unless it is marked, [it] to be played “Non arpeggiando” with 2 or 3 (sometimes 4!) fingers—rather like guitar technique!’. On 11 February Rostropovich sent a telegram to Britten to report that he was ‘admiring and in love with your great sonata’. On 5 March the two musicians met at Britten’s London flat for a preliminary play-through of the new work: they were initially nervous but, apparently with the aid of a few stiff drinks, launched themselves into the piece with gusto and thereafter remained firm friends. Rostropovich later recalled: ‘I was so excited I could not even tell how we played. I only noticed that we came to the end of the first movement at the same time. I jumped up, hopped over the cello, and rushed to the composer to embrace him in a burst of spontaneous gratefulness.’

The sonata’s first performance was given by dedicatee and composer at the Aldeburgh Festival on 7 July 1961. So well received was the work that the fourth and fifth movements had to be encored. Reviewing the concert in The Times, William Mann observed that Britten may well have intended the sonata ‘to reflect his own impression of the character of the player to whom it is dedicated: gay, charming, an astonishingly brilliant executant, but behind all these qualities a searching musician with the mind of a philosopher’. As with many of his earlier instrumental works, Britten cast this character-portrait in the form of a multi-movement suite rather than following a traditional classical sonata archetype. The music’s style is noticeably leaner and more economical than much of his earlier output, looking directly ahead to the sparser writing that followed the watershed of his next major work, the War Requiem.

The possibility of a new concerto for Rostropovich had also been discussed, Britten writing to the cellist on 14 March 1962 to express regret that he had been fully committed with other projects (principally the War Requiem), but adding: ‘I am determined to write one for you, and we can at least discuss what it will be like.’ On 6 June Rostropovich replied: ‘Write for the cello everything that your heart tells you, never mind how difficult it is; my love for you will help me to master every note, even the most impossible ones.’ Britten began composing his new work—which he came to call Symphony for cello and orchestra—in the autumn, and sent the first movement to Rostropovich in November. In his covering note, Britten commented: ‘As you see, it is going to be rather a big piece; this is only the first of four big movements—very much shaped like a symphony; in fact, I wonder whether it would not be better to call it Sinfonia Concertante.’ Plans to perform the work during Britten’s visit to the Soviet Union in March 1963 did not materialize, nor did the alternative suggestion that it instead be first performed at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival; bouts of ill health on both the composer’s and soloist’s parts had intervened. When writing to Ekaterina Furtseva to secure permission for Rostropovich to travel to the UK for the projected premiere, Britten wrote of Rostropovich and his wife: ‘My admiration and friendship for these two great Soviet artists knows no bounds, and the impact on our musical public that they make is overwhelming both from their great musicianship and warm and charming personalities.’

In the event, it was not until April 1963 that Britten was able to complete the score of the Cello Symphony. He was back in the Soviet Union in early 1964, and during this trip he was able to conduct the work’s postponed premiere, which took place in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on 12 March. Given by Rostropovich and the Moscow Philharmonic, the performance was repeated four days later in Leningrad. In Moscow, students attending the concert were so enthusiastic in their response that the finale had to be encored. The first UK performance followed on 18 June at the Aldeburgh Festival and, soon after it had received another airing in Holland during July, Rostropovich and Britten made their celebrated Decca recording of the score with the English Chamber Orchestra. Writing to Britten from Chicago in 1965 after having given numerous further performances of the piece, however, Rostropovich reported that when the New York Cellists’ Club had played him the recording, ‘I almost wept: I play it so very, very much better now and am so sad that we can’t go and record it again straight away!’.

The Cello Symphony was Britten’s first orchestral work on the sonata principle for a period of over twenty years, and was to remain his only substantial piece of absolute symphonic music. As the title suggests, throughout the work the soloist and orchestra are treated on equal terms, sharing all the important melodic material. The first movement begins with a rhetorical introduction from the cello, the style recalling the composer’s debt to Purcell, and this leads to a straightforward sonata form in which the roles of soloist and orchestra are reversed in the recapitulation. The shadowy scherzo (Presto inquieto) is a technical tour de force, every melodic and harmonic fragment derived from the same group of motivic cells; in spite of its rigorously intellectual construction, however, the movement has an unparalleled eeriness and intensity. Baroque influences return in the double-dotted rhythms of the Adagio, and a version of the finale’s main theme is heard before the soloist’s cadenza. The Passacaglia is more harmonic in conception than melodic, the chord sequence on which it is based being announced by the soloist beneath the opening trumpet solo.

Britten also composed for Rostropovich a trilogy of suites for solo cello that constitute rare and valuable examples of a genre sadly neglected by composers since it reached a peak of perfection at the hands of Bach around 1720. The compositional idiom of Britten’s suites harks back in some respects to the precociously inventive instrumental works of his youth, when he had been branded as merely ‘clever’ by astonished critics as he first made his name in the 1930s, and before he devoted most of his attention to composing operas and vocal music.

The suites’ self evident delight in technical wizardry, their exploration of the contrast between drama, lyricism and wit, together with the evocative titles of the individual character pieces which make up each suite, all form a direct link with Britten’s early instrumental display pieces such as the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. (His use of sometimes flamboyant Italian tempo markings in the suites is perhaps symptomatic of the relish with which he returned to instrumental composition, since he generally avoided them in his vocal works.) Britten’s cello writing reveals the influence of Bach in its skilful suggestion of a harmonic dimension by purely linear means, and in the fugues which appear in all three suites Britten even shows himself able to create the illusion of several apparently independent contrapuntal parts by subtle displacements of a single melodic line. In spite of these intriguing technical experiments, Britten’s musical conceptions are never superficial: the technical demands placed on the soloist are always inextricable from genuine musical substance, much in the manner of Chopin’s Études or Bach’s ‘48’.

The Suite No 1 was composed in November and December 1964 and was Britten’s first major score after completing the church parable Curlew River; it received its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival on 27 June 1965. In the manner of much of Britten’s music in this period, a ritornello theme (here entitled Canto) is used to link the constituent sections, and to provide an outer frame. The remainder of the music falls into six distinct movements: an ingenious Fuga (Andante moderato), Lamento (Lento rubato), a pizzicato Serenata (Allegretto; the homage here is to Debussy, whose Cello Sonata Britten had recorded with Rostropovich in 1961), Marcia (Alla marcia moderato), Bordone (Moderato quasi recitativo) and a concluding Moto perpetuo (Presto) that merges with the final restatement of the ritornello. When Britten had first sent Rostropovich the score and expressed some lack of confidence in it, the cellist responded in January 1965: ‘Dear, darling, beloved Ben of genius, the surprise which I received here in Paris via Marion [Harewood, Britten’s friend, who had delivered a copy of the manuscript], was stupefying!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You write in the letter that you don’t consider this work too successful. I looked at it, so far only on paper, but I tell you honestly: 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 First 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. The Suite No 2 was given its first performance by Rostropovich at the 1968 Aldeburgh Festival, and is similar in layout to its predecessor (although lacking the recurrent Canto which had bound the earlier work together). An introductory Declamato (Largo) leads to a complex Fuga (Andante), in which Britten’s monophonic counterpoint is so ingenious that the fugue’s subject can be presented in up to three dovetailed entries without recourse to double-stopping. Next comes a Scherzo (Allegro molto) which presents two contrasting ideas and later combines them in a condensed form. A slow movement (Andante lento), exploiting a tonally ambiguous alternation between major and minor triads, leads without a break into the concluding Ciaccona (Allegro) where Britten indulges in his favourite ground-bass form with characteristic inventiveness and fluency.

The Suite No 3, completed in the spring of 1971 but not performed by its dedicatee until December 1974 owing to severe restrictions on his movements imposed by the Soviet authorities in the wake of his friendship with the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, pays tribute to Rostropovich’s Russian heritage in its format of a set of variations on four traditional Russian themes. The first three are taken from Tchaikovsky’s volumes of folk song arrangements (‘Under the apple tree’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘The grey eagle’) and the fourth is the Kontakion, or hymn to the departed. The final suite works in reverse, as it were, by delaying the statement of these themes until the very end, after all the variations have been heard. Although the movements follow one another without a break, each variation is a self-contained character piece. After the initial Introduzione, there follows a Marcia, Canto, Barcarola, Dialogo, Fuga, Recitativo, Moto perpetuo and concluding Passacaglia.

Britten’s final, brief composition for Rostropovich came about as a result of their mutual friendship with the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher. The links between the three musicians intensified in the early 1970s when both Britten and Sacher were deeply concerned for Rostropovich’s plight in the wake of his support for Solzhenitsyn, at a time when it was hoped that the cellist would be permitted to continue to give performances of Britten’s cello music in both the UK and Switzerland. Sacher celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1976, and to mark the occasion Rostropovich asked Britten to write Tema ‘Sacher’, a theme based on the letters of the conductor’s surname which could be used as a basis for a set of variations to be contributed by a roster of distinguished contemporary composers. (This project did not come to fruition as Rostropovich had intended: the composers concerned wrote independent pieces rather than variations, though they also based them on on the musical spelling of Sacher’s surname.) Rostropovich premiered Britten’s little theme in Zurich on 2 May 1976, just seven months before its composer’s untimely death.

Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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