This double CD set marks the centenary of Britten's birth in 1913.
The six works chart the sixteen year (1960 to 1976) friendship between
Britten and Rostropovich; known to his friends as ‘Slava’.
Berlin-born Alban Gerhardt the cello soloist in these six cello works
has recorded several discs for Hyperion. In March 2011 at the Manchester
Bridgewater Hall I reported on Gerhardt performing in concert with
the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Juanjo Mena. In Tchaikovsky’s
Variations on a Rococo Theme
Gerhardt’s playing seemed
effortless, radiating such calm assurance. Baroque violinist turned
conductor Andrew Manze is quickly gaining a reputation as a champion
of British music. His performance of Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies
4-6 with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at the 2012 BBC Proms
garnered significant acclaim. He certainly knows how to conduct Britten.
I have fond memories of attending a concert at the Munich Philharmonie
in May 2010 with Manze conducting the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra
in a programme of British music that included Britten’s Four
from Peter Grimes
, Sinfonia da Requiem
and The Young Person’s Guide
. Scottish concert pianist
Steven Osborne has been recording for Hyperion for many years. He
was in splendid form when I attended his performance of the Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 19
with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under
Juanjo Mena at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester in October 2012.
Britten and Rostropovich met in London in September 1960 at the Royal
Festival Hall for the London première of Shostakovich’s
First Cello Concerto
. The great Soviet Russian composer was
there in person. The result was the Sonata for cello and piano
, Op 65 that Rostropovich premièred with Britten at
the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival. Gerhardt and Osborne prove sympathetic
partners in this emotional roller-coaster ride which deserves to be
played more often in the recital hall.
Next for Rostropovich was the Cello Symphony
from 1963 just
a year after Britten completed the War Requiem
. It was Rostropovich
who gave the first performance under Britten’s baton with the
Moscow Philharmonic at the Moscow Conservatory in 1964. The Cello
Symphony is, in effect, a cello concerto, reflecting a journey between
the extremes of despair and joy. This is a generally dense rather
weighty and dark-hued score. It doesn’t easily reveal its virtues.
Some years ago when I was new to the Cello Symphony
several plays before becoming enamoured of Britten’s dense writing
but it was certainly worth the effort. Gerhardt’s command of
the writing is palpable. He plays throughout with drama, strength
and conviction. The orchestra provides incisive playing and the end
result is most persuasive.
Between 1964 and 1971 Britten wrote a series of three substantial
solo Cello Suites
all dedicated and premièred by Rostropovich.
With around sixty-five minutes of music in total these are intensely
personal and introspective scores. They provide a stern series of
technical and emotional tests for the soloist. With a reasonable degree
of concentration there is certainly enjoyment to be had from these
scores. These performances are testimony to Gerhardt’s judicious
preparation. Communicating a strong sense of intimacy one feels the
deep concentration in this compelling playing.
The final work written for Rostropovich on the disc is Tema Sacher
for solo cello. It lasts here just over a minute and half. Britten
was one of twelve composers invited by Rostropovich to write a short
work for solo cello to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Paul Sacher
the Swiss conductor and music patron. The theme of the score is based
on Sacher’s name in musical notation. This is by no means just
a clever academic exercise. It has a degree of emotional substance
although sadly it is all over in what seems like a flash.
Gerhardt is admirable throughout providing expressive and concentrated
performances enhanced by high quality sonics from the Hyperion engineers.
Britten discography &