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Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op 68
1963, revised 1964; written for Mstislav Rostropovich who gave the first performance under Britten with the Moscow Philharmonic at the Moscow Conservatory

'Shostakovich: Cello Concerto; Britten: Cello Symphony' (SIGCD137)
Shostakovich: Cello Concerto; Britten: Cello Symphony
SIGCD137  Download only   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'Britten: Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites' (CDA67941/2)
Britten: Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites
Buy by post £20.00 CDA67941/2  2CDs   Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Movement 1: Allegro maestoso
Movement 2: Presto inquieto
Movement 3: Adagio – cadenza ad lib –
Movement 4: Passacaglia: Andante allegro

Symphony for cello and orchestra, Op 68
The possibility of a new concerto for Rostropovich having 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.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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Details for CDA67941/2 disc 1 track 1
Allegro maestoso
Recording date
11 March 2012
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Britten: Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites (CDA67941/2)
    Disc 1 Track 1
    Release date: January 2013
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