Shostakovich was there too, starting a friendship with Britten that lasted until his death, while the British composer went on to write five works for the cellist. Those pieces were the backbone of Aldeburgh Music’s Britten and Russia weekend, which ended with a re-creation of the historic 1960 concert, for which Jac van Steen conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBCNOW).
The most substantial of Britten’s pieces for Rostropovich was the Cello Symphony of 1964 and, with Alban Gerhardt as the soloist, it formed the centrepiece of the previous day’s programme from van Steen and BBCNOW, which also included Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. If all Britten’s cello works are elusive in one way or another, then the Symphony seems the most mysterious of them – a concerto in all but name, in which the soloist seems engaged in a constant battle to establish his individuality. It suits Gerhardt’s unshowy mastery perfectly.
Earlier the same day, in a recital he’d shared with the impressive soprano Julia Sitkovetsky, who sang Prokofiev and Rachmaninov with pianist Roger Vignoles, Gerhardt had played the first and third of Britten’s solo cello Suites. If the first suite is quite clearly modelled on Bach’s six examples, then the third seems formally as original as the Cello Symphony, a series of nine movements that are effectively a giant set of variations on a collection of Russian themes. Gerhardt played both of them with an almost casual brilliance, wearing his virtuosity as lightly as anyone could; it’s hard to think of a better cellist around today.