The Britten Project – Cello Suites

Cello Suite No.1 – Op. 72, 1964
Cello Suite No.2 – Op. 80, 1967
Cello Suite No.3 – Op. 87, 1972

I began listening to these suites when I was in Melbourne last week – in the evenings when I was doing nothing I would get my ipod and listen to a suite. In a strange parallel I had been listening to Bach’s cello suites on my flight to Melbourne and they, as Bach tends to do, hung around in my head and were like a point of departure, or comparison to the Britten suites. Bach does tend to be the measure all other music is held to, and the Britten suites had a very distinct similarity in feeling, and in some parts in sound, to the Bach. Bach’s solo works do get quite harmonically adventurous and though you can’t mistake one for the other, some movements, like the Prelude and Sarabande of the 5th suite are sound an awful lot like the opening of the Britten’s 2nd Suite’s Largo and Andante, and it’s worth noting that the 3rd Suite was inspired by hearing Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist to whom these 3 suites are based, playing the Bach suites.

In the scheme of Britten’s compositions the cello suites are all quite late works. The first though it begins so melodically, ends with such a strong flavour of Shoenberg and the (a)tonality he was famous for – it was written at the end of 1964 and premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival on the 27th June 1965. It wasn’t Britten’s first time writing for the Cello – he’d previously written a Sonata for cello and piano, and a cello Symphony (as well as many orchestral works that include the cello). It’s such an impressive work – more cocentrated than either of the other two suites, it seems to decend into a world of its own – that’s one of the things Britten does so well – the alien sounds of the 20th century are in his hand the most natural thing – I cannot say that his music is atonal, for the tonality is completely comprehensible feels as natural as anything.

Suite No.1

Canto primo: Sostenuto e largamente – Fuga: Andante moderato – Lamento: Lento rubato – Canto secondo: Sostenuto – Serenata: Allegretto pizzicato – Marcia: Alla marcia moderato – Canto terzo: Sostenuto – Bordone: Moderato quasi recitativo – Moto perpetuo e Canto quarto: Presto

The Second Suite dates from the summer of 1967 and Rostropovich gave the premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival on the 17th June 1968. This suite seems the most experimental of the three and the many textures of the cello jar against one another – so angular the line goes and does not stop jumping around. It’s probably my least favourite, but perhaps that’s because I was hoping for more of the late Romantic sound of the Declamato, and instead the interest was in the rhythms and beats – always a little off balance, never at rest – almost a fear and unease, which doesn’t make it the easiest thing to enjoy, but quite a powerful thing to experience.

Suit No.2

Declamato: Largo – Fuga: Andante – Scherzo: Allegro molto – Andante lento – Ciaccona: Allegro

Britten composed the Third Suite in 1971, This suite was inspired by Rostropovich’s playing of the unaccompanied cello suites of Bach. Written in 1971, it was first performed on the 21st December 1974. So beautiful – so much of an anguish to listen to – so happily carried along. It’s certaly more extreme than the other two suites. Apparently it uses four Russian themes (three by Tchaikovsky), one of which is the Russian Orthadox Hymn for the dead. It is in this suite that I think the cello is at its most lyrical –  and with much sorrowful melodies it sings in that way that you cannot help but love. Here too there is an arpeggiated bit which is so much like the typical Bach preludes.

Suite No.3

Introduzione: Lento – Marcia: Allegro – Canto: Con Moto – Barcarolla: Lento – Dialogo: Allegretto – Fuga: Andante espressivo – Recitativo: Fantastico – Moto perpetuo: Presto – Passacaglia: Lento solenne

There aren’t very many good recordings on youtube, but on spotify there are a huge number by brilliant cellists. Rostropovich recorded the first two suites, and there is a recoding of him performing the second live (here).