Britten, Rostropovich and the rest of us: performing the solo suites
By Natalie Clein, for Opera North's 'Festival of Britten ' programme .
We cellists have a great deal to thank Rostropovich (Slava to his friends ) for. He single-handedly changed the face of 20th century repertoire for our instrument by inspiring almost all of the great living composers of his era to write for him - which now means us. Slava had, in his own words, 'three musical Gods': Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten. Of the three, it was Britten who ended up writing the most material for him - a concerto in the form of the Cello Symphony, the Sonata for Cello and Piano and three solo Cello Suites.
Britten once commented that the reason he had written so prolifically for the cello was because Rostropovich had 'bullied' him into it! There was certainly a great deal of vodka and whisky consumed together over the course of their musical friendship, but I am sure that closer to the truth was the fact that Britten was deeply inspired by Slava's new and unique approach to sound and his all-engulfing charisma. 'This was a new way of playing the cello', Britten is quoted as saying, 'almost a new, vital way of playing music'. And this is why, when I think about playing any cello piece by Britten, there is an inextricable link to the great cellist too. However the link does not feel at all restrictive; rather it is a doorway into the sound world and hugeness of vision that Britten was hoping to express through his music. I never feel that Slava is a barrier to finding my own way with the music.
I had the great fortune to meet Rostropovich on three separate occasions spanning nearly ten years. The first meeting took place when I was 13 years old, the last when I was 23, and at this last meeting I played part of the Britten Sonata for Cello and Piano for him. He talked passionately about sound production and the constant search for new colours and I specifically remember a description that had apparently come directly from Britten of a low rumbling passage in the first movement resembling thick black oil oozing slowly forward. But I didn't feel that Rostropovich was looking for other cellists to copy him, but rather for us to find the essence and the structure of the work for ourselves and carry that forward to our own interpretation of the works.
I dearly love performing Britten's solo Suites. They seem to come alive in performance in the way that great yet elusive music can. Perhaps it is because they demand a canvas of concentrated silence which can only be achieved in the stillness of a concert setting, or because the spirit of dialogue and conversation that inhabits all three Suites benefits from having at least another set of ears to witness it, or because the idea of performance and performer is so built into the music that the piece isn't complete until the ritual act of a concert is taking place. The music is also extremely intimate and personal, as though Britten is working out ideas for himself and between himself and the cellist. In this way, the music closely resembles the solo Bach Suites that Britten was obviously drawing from. Indeed, there is another anecdote from Slava where he describes going to Britten (again armed with a bottle of something containing at least 40% alcohol) and playing for him most of the cello repertoire that was in his fingers. I'm sure that this was invaluable for Britten - a kind of crash course in what is possible on the instrument - and he even quotes directly in the Third Suite from the first G major Bach Prelude at a moment that always feels like a nostalgic homage to the beauty and simplicity of the Bach and the sensuality and beauty of the moving harmonic undulations.
Britten experiments with every kind of technique available to a cellist and I always feel challenged physically when approaching his music in a very particular way. The music demands extreme strength at one moment - for example at the beginning of the First Suite, where even the striding God of cello sound could wish for more power to be closer to an organ or choir of 1000 - and then intricate pizzicato control or fast moto perpetuo virtuosity the next. There is also a theatrical changing of moods that happens in all three Suites sometimes very quickly or whimsically and this takes a very specific type of mercurial energy and focus to achieve. Britten is meticulous with his markings in the score and they are always logical and perfectly judged, so this adds to the challenge of not only speaking his language as well as possible, but also of getting the lilt and the accent right too. There are many stories of Britten as a conductor terrifying the musicians at a first rehearsal by demanding to hear exactly what he had written, down to the smallest dot and dash, including several from my mother who was a violinist in an orchestra in Holland that he came to conduct. This can be very tough to achieve, but I love approaching a score this way and just like, for example, Schubert, who Britten deeply admired, playing exactly what is in the score is the most exciting and creative thing you can do with the music.
If a listener is not so familiar with his music, some of Britten can seem enigmatic and difficult to grasp on first hearing, but I think these barriers come down very fast on second hearing. Britten rarely writes atonally so there is always a harmonic inevitably and 'rightness' to what we are hearing that is fundamentally satisfying. This is clear right from the opening of the first Suite. We are in G and D major simultaneously but the bi-tonality is beautiful, sonorous and gives us the same sense of expectation and gratification that Bach gives us. The same is true of the form of what he writes. The Third Suite, a gesture of 'Anglo-Russian friendship' as it is described in the published music, dances and sings its way through nine movements linked together by themes that we only hear in their entirety at the end of the piece. This coming together of the Russian folk themes and Hymn for the Dead (Kontakion) is a moving and deeply affecting moment but only because of what we have experienced for the 25 minutes before reaching this point. The beauty of simplicity has to be earned, even though it was lurking in the shadows all along.
I recently played a concert featuring the Third Britten Suite and a member of the audience commented after the performance that it was very different from Rostropovich's recording of the piece. I found this interesting as, to his great regret, Slava never did get around to recording the Third Suite. But I didn't mind the comment at all because I understood what was in his imagination. And perhaps it is this image of the ideal Slava, together in dialogue with Britten's music, that inspires us. The two worlds are fused together and there for all of us to interpret anew each time a cellist walks on stage or an audience member takes their seat in the hall.