Cello Symphony, Benjamin Britten

Mstislav Rostropovich / ECO, 1982
In the British composer’s 1963 riverine lament, the distinct blend of luminosity and burnished tone evokes memory after memory.

By the 1960s, Benjamin Britten had marked himself out as an outsider, too wrapped up in his conservative harmonic language and sentimental melodic idioms. Britten openly mocked such concerns. He once remarked to Jonathan Harvey, who would become a central figure in the generation of post-war British composers succeeding the era of Walton and Tippett: “don’t worry what silly people say about influences – unless we were all influenced by someone we’d write just nonsense.”

And it is in the Cello Symphony of 1963 where Britten’s deliberate defiance of the general direction of the avant-garde agenda is made clear. From the moment the chordal figures tear through the introduction’s half-lit bass, the composer’s distinct blend of luminosity and burnished tone evokes memory after memory.

One such reflection infusing the piece is the elegiac afterburn of the War Requiem, which Britten completed the year before. These spectres emerge in the tired triumphalism of the Cello Symphony’s Passacaglia movement – a glorious sunset that at the same time speaks of a deep bitterness.

The other presence is, of course, the cellist for whom Britten wrote. The Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s remarkable propensity for a concentrated yet subtly breathing sound made an eloquent fit for the Cello Symphony’s orchestral heft. “This was a new way of playing the cello”, Britten gushed. “Almost a new, vital way of playing music.”

The riverine lament of the Cello Symphony shows the British composer writing at his most alert, offering an almost uncanny understanding of his instruments. The effect is of a piece in which the solo cellist is continually pitting muscle against the full force of the orchestra. At the same time, the Cello Symphony’s dual forces necessitate a democratic intent, as all too often, elements are translated from orchestra to cello, and the cellist takes on harmonic ground in a kind of textural inversion of a traditional concerto.

But at its heart, the piece speaks of a remarkable relationship, an “extraordinary musical synergy” between two men, as John Bridcut writes. Rostropovich recalled a typically whisky-soaked rehearsal with the composer of Britten’s Sonata for Cello and Piano: “we played like pigs, but we were so happy”.

Listening notes: This is the famous Decca recording with Rostropovich and the English Chamber Orchestra. Rather than allowing the sound of the cello to develop at a distance, Rostropovich controversially favoured close-miking when he came to record the Britten. At the same time, the sense of dialogue between soloist and orchestra is apparent from the jagged elegance of the opening declamations (I 1:07). The on-off nature of soloist and orchestra is the central challenge of the piece. Across this conversation, the soundscape is alive with rich colouration, from the first sound of rumbling bass drum and double-bass (I 0.05) to the string section dancing spiccato figures across a layer of muted brass (II 1:30)

Image: Mstislav Rostropovich / ECO, 1982