Hyperion Records

Sonata for cello and piano in C, Op 65
1960/1; written for Mstislav Rostropovich who gave the first performance with Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival on 7 July 1961

'Britten: Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites' (CDA67941/2)
Britten: Cello Symphony, Cello Sonata & Cello Suites
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'Shostakovich, Britten & Prokofiev: Cello Sonatas' (SIGCD274)
Shostakovich, Britten & Prokofiev: Cello Sonatas
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Movement 1: Dialogo
Movement 2: Scherzo – Pizzicato
Movement 3: Elegia
Movement 4: Marcia
Movement 5: Moto perpetuo

Sonata for cello and piano in C, Op 65
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.

from notes by Mervyn Cooke © 2013

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