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Suite for Cello No.1 Op.72

Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)

Philip Higham (photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas)

Philip Higham (photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas)

Composer
Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
Composition Year
1964
Work Movements
1. Canto primo – sostenuto e largamente
2. Fuga – Andante moderato
3. Lamento – Lento rubato
4. Canto second – Sostenuto
5. Serenata – Allegretto pizzicato
6. Marcia – Alle Marcia moderato
7. Canto terzo – Sostenuto
8. Bordone – Moderato quasi recitative
9. Moto perpetuo e Canto quarto – Presto
Artists
Philip Higham [cello]

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

The first meeting of Britten and Rostropovich has gone down in legend. The occasion was the London premiere in September 1960 of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto when Britten accepted an invitation from the composer to sit in his box at the Festival Hall. After the concert Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich, who begged him to write a piece for him. Britten duly promised to write a cello sonata if Rostropovich promised to come and play it at Aldeburgh the next year. Thus began the extraordinary Anglo-Russian collaboration between composer, cellist and the cellist’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, the magnificent Russian soprano with the great Russian composer an enigmatic, off-stage presence. In Rostropovich Britten had found a great artist for whom there were no technical challenges he could not surmount.

Britten in turn set himself an impossible challenge, namely a promise, duly set down in the famous table napkin contract, to write six solo suites in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. Illness and death eventually restricted Britten to three Suites. The music is incredibly sparse, pared down almost to emptiness, in a dramatic contrast to the richness of the Bach. I haven’t yet achieved the simplicity I should like in my music, he wrote in 1963; this Suite was written a year later. In listening to this work, it helps to know it was written in the shadow of his War Requiem, something that becomes startlingly clear when you reach the Marcia with its haunted bugle calls and drums of war. Indeed this Suite has even been described as a coda to the War Requiem.

The opening Canto’s refrain is almost beyond sadness with its stark and lonely song. It acts as a Greek Chorus, returning time and again to sing its song. The nine movements flow into each other without a break. First up is a fugue, a challenge Britten always enjoyed, leading to the startlingly passionate Lamento and the first brief return of the Canto. The technical next challenge is the all-pizzicato guitar-like Sostenuto that leads directly into the ghostly bugles and drums of the Marcia. After the final deathly bugle blows, the Canto reappears for the third time before giving away to the sad folk music drone of the Bordone. The final moto perpetua flies off the strings until the Canto refrain increasingly forces its way back into the music leading to a dramatic but inconclusive close.

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Suite for Cello No.1 Op.72

Composer: Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
Performance date: Saturday 5th July 2014
Venue: Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,

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Composer Benjamin Britten (b. 1913 - d. 1976)
Work Title Suite for Cello No.1 Op.72
Composition Year 1964
Work Movements 1. Canto primo – sostenuto e largamente
2. Fuga – Andante moderato
3. Lamento – Lento rubato
4. Canto second – Sostenuto
5. Serenata – Allegretto pizzicato
6. Marcia – Alle Marcia moderato
7. Canto terzo – Sostenuto
8. Bordone – Moderato quasi recitative
9. Moto perpetuo e Canto quarto – Presto
Artist(s) Philip Higham [cello]
Performance Date Saturday 5th July 2014
Performance Venue Bantry House Library, Bantry, Co. Cork, Ireland,
Event Finale
Duration 00:23:21
Recording Engineer Damian Chennells, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category Solo
Instrumentation vc
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

The first meeting of Britten and Rostropovich has gone down in legend. The occasion was the London premiere in September 1960 of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto when Britten accepted an invitation from the composer to sit in his box at the Festival Hall. After the concert Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich, who begged him to write a piece for him. Britten duly promised to write a cello sonata if Rostropovich promised to come and play it at Aldeburgh the next year. Thus began the extraordinary Anglo-Russian collaboration between composer, cellist and the cellist’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, the magnificent Russian soprano with the great Russian composer an enigmatic, off-stage presence. In Rostropovich Britten had found a great artist for whom there were no technical challenges he could not surmount.

Britten in turn set himself an impossible challenge, namely a promise, duly set down in the famous table napkin contract, to write six solo suites in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. Illness and death eventually restricted Britten to three Suites. The music is incredibly sparse, pared down almost to emptiness, in a dramatic contrast to the richness of the Bach. I haven’t yet achieved the simplicity I should like in my music, he wrote in 1963; this Suite was written a year later. In listening to this work, it helps to know it was written in the shadow of his War Requiem, something that becomes startlingly clear when you reach the Marcia with its haunted bugle calls and drums of war. Indeed this Suite has even been described as a coda to the War Requiem.

The opening Canto’s refrain is almost beyond sadness with its stark and lonely song. It acts as a Greek Chorus, returning time and again to sing its song. The nine movements flow into each other without a break. First up is a fugue, a challenge Britten always enjoyed, leading to the startlingly passionate Lamento and the first brief return of the Canto. The technical next challenge is the all-pizzicato guitar-like Sostenuto that leads directly into the ghostly bugles and drums of the Marcia. After the final deathly bugle blows, the Canto reappears for the third time before giving away to the sad folk music drone of the Bordone. The final moto perpetua flies off the strings until the Canto refrain increasingly forces its way back into the music leading to a dramatic but inconclusive close.