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Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

Cello Suites

Jamie Walton (cello)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: November 2011
Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by John H West
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: July 2013
Total duration: 61 minutes 13 seconds

Joining several albums from Signum celebrating 2013's Britten Centenary Year comes a new collection of the three Suites for Solo Cello, performed by star UK cellist Jamie Walton. Recorded in the Britten Studio at Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, the three suites were dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, with the passionate third in particular inspired by Rostropovich’s rich and romantic performances of Bach’s unaccompanied suites. Jamie Walton has established a reputation as a performer who deeply engages with the works he performs and records. Earlier this year he released a new recording of cello concertos by Schumann and Dvorak with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy (SIGCD322).


'Britten’s suites for solo cello are not perhaps an easy listen any more than they are easy to play, but Jamie Walton’s absorbing performances of all three seem to expose and explore the emotional heart and soul that went into the writing of them … Walton’s range of utterance is rich, subtly inflected and a towering testament to his innate musicality and profound thinking' (The Daily Telegraph)» More

'The three solo suites (1964-71) were written for Britten's friend Mstislav Rostropovich. Britten references the great solo cello works by Bach with his neo-baroque titling of some of the movements, but in the melancholy slow pieces he pays tribute to the music of Rostropovich's Russian homeland, with cantilenas redolent of doleful folk songs. In the third, he quotes three Tchaikovsky arrangements and the funeral Kontakion (the Russian Orthodox Hymn to the Departed). Walton completes his survey of Britten's cello music with this disc, including the theme for a composite piece dedicated to Paul Sacher. None of this music holds terrors for Walton, with his big, bold tone and formidable technique' (The Sunday Times)

'A fine account of Britten's solo cello music, inspired by admiration of Rostropovich, and stemming from a 'challenging' period of this cellist's life. There is an ample note by M. Ross, explaining the complicated relationships between Britten, Rostropovich and Sacher. An excellent album but do listen to the Suites one at a time!' (Musical Pointers)
I certainly write music for human beings—directly and deliberately. I consider their voices, the range, the power, the subtlety, and the colour potentialities of them. I consider the instruments they play—their most expressive and suitable individual sonorities … almost every piece I have ever written has been composed with a certain occasion in mind, and usually for definite performers …

This extract from Benjamin Britten’s speech on being presented with the inaugural Aspen Award for Services to the Humanities cuts right to the heart of the inspirations for his work—people and occasions. Naturally, his partner, the tenor Peter Pears was a constant focus and impetus for many a composition, as was his festival at Aldeburgh, but Britten was drawn to pre-eminent performing talent wherever he found it. Although naturally drawn toward operatic, vocal, choral and orchestral idioms, the instrumental soloist was by no means neglected. He composed extraordinary works celebrating the very greatest practitioners: the horn player Dennis Brain, the harpist Ossian Ellis and the lutenist and guitarist Julian Bream, amongst others, being beneficiaries of his compositional largesse.

Later in 1964, the same year as the Aspen Award speech, Britten developed the people and occasions theme:

I’ve always had the advantage … of needing occasions or performers to attract and inspire me—I mean inspire me in the old sense; that is, the event or player blows enthusiasm into me. After Dennis Brain and Julian Bream, it’s been Rostropovich. … Rostropovich freed one of my inhibitions. He’s such a gloriously uninhibited musician himself, with the enormous feeling of generosity you get from the best Russian players, coming to meet you all the way. I’d heard about him, and rather unwittingly listened to the wireless. I immediately realised that this was a new way to play the cello, in fact almost a new, vital way of playing music. I made arrangements to come to London and heard him again, and found him in the flesh even more than I’d expected.

This initial meeting between Britten and Rostropovich was at the Royal Festival Hall in London, September 1960, on the occasion of the UK premiere of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, with the irrepressible Rostropovich at the centre of the action. Shostakovich and Britten were meeting for the first time with Britten accepting the Russian composer’s invitation to sit with him in his box only days after being astounded by the radio broadcast mentioned above. So excited was Britten during the performance that Shostakovich later complained of having sore ribs after being repeatedly elbowed by an astonished Britten. After the concert, Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich whose years behind the Iron Curtain precluded any thorough knowledge of the English composer’s output. Rostropovich had heard only The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is based on a theme by Purcell. Having not even seen a photograph of Britten, and working purely on this baroque-hued evidence, he had assumed Britten was a composer from a previous century and fell into a fit of laughter on being introduced to him. On realising that this was no practical joke and Benjamin Britten was indeed standing before him, he immediately set about imploring the composer to write something for him.

It didn’t take long for the ebullient, Rostropovich and Britten to form a close and lasting personal and professional relationship. Having no common fluent tongue, they communicated in their own bastardised form of German which came to be known as ‘Aldeburgh Deutsch’ after Britten’s adopted home town. He wrote not only his three Cello Suites and the Cello Sonata for Rostropovich, but also the Cello Symphony and a set of cadenzas for Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto. Britten, Pears and Rostropovich together with his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, appear to have enjoyed a free and easy friendship, meeting socially, but also performing professionally. Aside from the cello works for Rostropovich, Britten also composed his song set, The Poet’s Echo for Vishnevskaya, and the solo soprano part in his War Requiem was written expressly for her voice. As for the Cello Sonata itself, Vishnevskaya describes it as a portrait of her husband, ‘now high and expressive, now low and grumbling, now gay and carefree.’ His first piece of entirely instrumental music in over a decade, Britten himself accompanied Rostropovich in the first performance at the Aldeburgh festival in 1961. After a short illness in 1962, Rostropovich wrote: ‘Dear Ben and Peter, if you want me to recover completely I ask you to see the doctor whose address is: The Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Only he can bring me to life by composing a brilliant cello concerto.’ On receiving the first movement, Rostropovich replied that it was ‘the very top of everything ever written for the cello’.

But Britten was far from finished with the cello, his three Suites for Cello Opp 72, 80 & 87 once again combined his ‘people and occasions’ mantra. Just as the Cello Sonata was written on the condition that Rostropovich should come to Aldeburgh to play it, so all three suites were not only written for Rostropovich, but also premiered by the cellist in Britten’s adopted home. The Suites are naturally in a direct line from the Baroque collections of dances which, for the cello, culminate in the six suites by J.S. Bach—a daunting prospect for any composer to emulate, but one which Britten, enthused and encouraged by Rostropovich’s interpretations of these masterpieces, was keen to give his best. While infused with ideas, techniques and inspiration from these extraordinary works, Britten does not present us with dance suites as such, but concentrates more on character pieces which emanate from the plethora of particularities in Rostropovich’s awesome technique and protean re-creative ability.

The impact that Rostropovich had on the cello repertoire of the last century can hardly be underestimated. His unique technique, inimitable sound and abundant enthusiasm made him a magnet for composers the world over. The ‘speaking’ quality he imparted and the depth, power and expressivity, his power of communication, most remarkably in the lower register of the cello, opened up all sorts of possibilities. He was also not backward at begging, cajoling and commissioning works, either. The list of compositions written for, dedicated to, or commissioned by Rostropovich is a subject in itself: Glière, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Messiaen, Bernstein, Dutilleux, Khachaturian, Schnittke, Piazzolla, Lutosławski and Penderecki are just a few of the most famous names. No cellist, and few musicians of any sort come close to expanding the repertoire of an instrument quite so widely during their own lifetime.

1964 was a busy year for Britten, honours and recognition of all kinds beginning to bring both great glory and often greater demands. Early in the year Britten conducted the premiere of his Symphony for Cello and Orchestra in Moscow, naturally with Rostropovich as soloist. The award of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society followed and the inaugural Aspen award heaped yet more glory. The Cello Suite No 1, Op 72 was composed at the end of this highly successful year.

Like Bach’s solo cello works the suite is formed of six movements, but with the addition of four utterances of the slow, sustained, reflective Canto acting as bookends and binding agent and which informs the musical argument of the movements proper. The Fuga is marked by the sort of implied counterpoint common to the Baroque, and especially in Bach, where the single line is manipulated to create the impression of a number of voices—indeed Britten’s fugue subject springs directly from the opening fugue of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Muscular and full of mischievous wit, the movement melts away with quicksilver harmonics leading into a free Lamento which plots a course between the centres of E and E flat. The Canto reprise moves on to a pizzicato Serenata which recalls both Debussy and flamenco style. The Marcia continues the Spanish influence with further guitar references, now in a more militaristic idiom, replete with fife and drum. After a third version of the Canto, the Bordone employs themes redolent of Britten’s Violin Concerto and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, underpinned by the drone suggested by the antiquated movement title. The Moto perpetuo begins with an extraordinary flight of quick-fire figuration, before the Canto steps in to temper matters, the two moods struggle before they combine to end the suite.

Just a few months after composing the First Cello Suite, Britten was further lauded, in early 1965, with the highest honour available to a British citizen, the Order of Merit, a special gift awarded by the British King or Queen to individuals of great achievement in the fields of the arts, learning, literature and science—an award for life and which only 24 persons can hold at any one time. At the tender age of 51, he remains one of the very youngest recipients of the honour, alongside Tim Berners-Lee of more recent World Wide Web fame. In December 1966, Britten and Pears returned to Russia to give recitals and spent the Russian New Year in the company of Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya and Shostakovich. By the end of the following August Britten had written the great ‘Slava’ a second suite, just two years after the premiere of the first.

The Cello Suite No 2, Op 80 is no mere extension or repetition of the first suite. It is an altogether different beast, cast in five movements and perhaps the closest of the three suites to a baroque model. The Declamato opens in a manner similar to that of Britten’s friend and colleague, Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Solemn, weighty and lyrical in utterance, it is followed by the most ingenious Fuga which combines a jagged, mordant subject with almost jocular rhythms, neither of which disturbs the overall serenity of this musical gem. The Scherzo continues the wit of the fugue, but now at speed, while the slow movement’s pizzicato keeps the momentum beneath (and sometimes above) the plaintive, nocturnal bowed melody. The finale is a Ciaccona, and the longest movement of the three suites—a nod to Bach’s mighty Chaconne from the D minor Violin Partita. The glue of the five-bar ground allows Britten to indulge in a devilishly intricate web of ornamentation and an astonishing range of virtuoso variation, before ending the suite on an unexpectedly positive note. In the Aldeburgh Festival programme for 1976, a few months before his death, Britten makes mention of his Cello Suite No 3, Op 87:

I wrote the suite in the early spring of 1971 and took it as a present to Rostropovich when Peter Pears and I visited Moscow and Leningrad in April of that year. The occasion was a week of British music, and our programme … was made memorable by the fact that both [pianist, Sviatoslav] Richter and Rostropovich joined us … As a tribute to a great Russian patriot I based this suite on Russian themes: the first three tunes were taken from Tchaikovsky’s volumes of folk-song arrangements; the fourth, the ‘Kontakion’ (Hymn to the Departed), from the English Hymnal …

The three Tchaikovsky songs are ‘The Grey Eagle’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Under the Little Apple Tree’. The piece as a whole takes the form of the most subtle variations, cross-currents, reflections and pre-echoes on these three tunes and the ‘Kontakion’, over nine movements, with the actual themes appearing only at the end. There is huge emotional depth in Britten’s musical argument in this suite. Hints of Russian Orthodox chant emanate from the ‘Kontakion’, but the piece hardly speaks of the fervour or solace of religion, but rather moves into darker, more uncertain and even angst-ridden regions. The Lento sets the sombre tone with pizzicato death knells and the Marcia can barely keep a Shostakovich-tinged paranoia far from surfacing. The mournful Canto is a short-breathed beauty, while the Barcarolle’s arpeggios seem to hint at happiness, even joie de vivre, before fracturing into panic and the confusion of the succeeding, schizophrenic Dialogo. The Fugue gives the impression of an oasis of relative calm while the Recitativo: Fantastico sounds like competing voices in a terrible dream, the Moto perpetuo only compounding the horror. The slower darkness of the Passacaglia is a momentary respite, before uncertainty returns and we are left with the naked statements of the Russian themes in their simple glory.

Britten’s final work for a solo instrument was also first performed by Rostropovich and composed to commemorate the 70th birthday of the conductor and musical philanthropist extraordinaire, Paul Sacher, on 2 May 1976. Sacher had studied conducting with Felix Weingartner and at the age of 20 founded the Basel Chamber Orchestra which concentrated on the work of contemporary and pre-Classical composers—a novel idea at the time. Marrying Maja Stehlin in 1934, Sacher soon came into vast wealth through her family links to the Hoffman-La Roche pharmaceutical firm (which included Valium among their products) and set about his ambition of commissioning works from the major composers of his day. Listed as high as the third richest man in the world late in his life, he was in a position financially to expect great music, but more importantly he was in a position musically to know genius when he heard it. Hundreds of new works flowed from his enthusiastic promotion of 20th-century music, and the group of composers he encouraged and commissioned from is utterly remarkable: Stravinsky, Bartók, Britten and Boulez are simply the tip of an iceberg which might even have made Rostropovich blush.

For the birthday celebration, Rostropovich decided to invite a dozen of Sacher’s composer friends to compose a work for cello which Rostropovich himself would perform. Lutosławski, Berio, Boulez, Dutilleux, Ginastera and Henze among others were happy to provide. Britten was already seriously ill when asked by Rostropovich to contribute, but nevertheless composed the Tema ‘Sacher’—a single minute of exciting and absorbing music to celebrate Sacher’s great contribution to the musical life of his time, and in communion with his fellow composers. Thus, to the very end, Britten remained ever committed to applying his craft and genius to people and to the occasion.

M Ross © 2013

The Britten Suites for solo cello have a very personal significance for me, ever since I discovered them in a library during a particularly challenging period in my life—the music spoke in a way which could be described as life-changing and the motivation to learn these works became one which navigated me out of turmoil. It was many years later, after a long break away from the music, when I felt the desire to record them (at Snape Maltings). It was the last recording I made with my friend and producer John West before he sadly passed away – the first work we ever recorded together was the Britten Cello Symphony, so in a way we came full circle having made a number of recordings in between, including the Sonata in C.

The Suites are so fascinating to study—both technically and musically. The potential of the instrument is magnificently fulfilled with originality and astonishing imagination, yet never vacuously so. The depth and power of this music is such that you can’t help being drawn in and I felt the need to present these masterpieces visually in a forthcoming DVD—I hope that this approach helps to create an extra element of accessibility for those who may not necessarily choose to simply listen to the Suites, after all an extremely intense and specialised experience.

I dedicate this recording to my late friend and producer, John West.

Jamie Walton © 2013

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