on 2 April 2007
The friendship between Britten and Rostropovich is well documented. We are hugely fortunate that it gave rise to Britten's being inspired to write extensively for the cello: his three solo suites, together with the Cello Symphony and the sonata for cello and piano, form a major addition to the wider oeuvre for this deeply romantic instrument. The case for the large-scale Cello Symphony never seems to me to be comprehensively proven, a view that's probably supported by the relative rarity of its appearance on concert schedules. But the four smaller scale works, three of which appear here, are all masterpieces. The three pieces for solo cello, along with Kodaly's fabulous and sadly neglected solo sonata (perhaps because it's pretty fiendish to play), form the first substantial serious new music for the instrument since Bach's six great suites.
Rostropovich gives them more than his usual passionate brilliance. He's a passionate man (who will ever forget the image of him playing his cello on the streets of a reforming Russia?) but this music surely has a uniquely special place in his great heart. That undoubtedly comes over in the playing.
The music is wonderful to match. This is a historic disc. I have no hesitation in commending it to you most warmly.
There are some fine digital recordings of Britten's cello suites today, but when you compare them with Rostropovich's authoritative account, it becomes soon obvious that it stands out in that Rostropovich engages himself with the same expressive intensity and depth he displays when he played Shostakovich's music. He seems to be able to dig deeper into Britten's inner world and angst than any other performers.
It's a shame that Suite No.3 is missing on this disc (he must have recorded the 3rd suite as well, as far as I know), but you get the wonderfully sensitive performance of Sonata for cello and piano instead, which is also a benchmark performance of the work.