Britten, Schubert, Debussy: Cello Sonatas review – how history was made in Aldeburgh

Andrew Clements
Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten rehearsing Britten’s Cello Sonata, written for Rostropovich, in the composer’s house in Aldeburgh. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Benjamin Britten first met Mstislav Rostropovich in 1960, when the Russian cellist came to London for the UK premiere of the concerto that Shostakovich had written for him. Rostropovich immediately asked Britten to compose something for him, too, and they settled on a cello sonata, on the condition that the Russian would come to Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, to give its premiere at the next festival. Britten finished the work by the following January, and Rostropovich travelled to Suffolk to give four concerts during the 1961 festival, one of which was a recital in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh with Britten at the piano, and the premiere of the new Cello Sonata as its centrepiece. The BBC’s tape of that concert is included in full on these discs, and though Rostropovich and Britten went on to make studio recordings of all the pieces they played that night, there’s a special sense of occasion in each bar of these performances.

The recital begins with Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, which Rostropovich had learned for his Aldeburgh visit, and which he apparently only played once more in public, also with Britten accompanying. The performance has real spontaneity, with Rostropovich bringing a wonderful range of touch and colour to Schubert’s melodies, Britten the perfect, tactful partner. Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style, Op 102, have just the right amount of rustic roughness, while Debussy’s Cello Sonata has a heightened sense of expressiveness about it, which seems to mirror the range of Britten’s enigmatic sonata, in which the duo take more risks than in the recording they made for Decca a few weeks later.

The discs also include the encores, too – the final Moto Perpetuo of Britten’s sonata repeated straight after the premiere, and the work’s fourth movement “Marcia” reprised at the end of the concert, when there’s another surprise, with Rostropovich supplying the cello obbligato for Peter Pears’ singing of Bach’s aria Woferne du den Edlen Frieden, from Cantata No 41. There’s more Bach to end the set from another of Rostropovich’s appearances at Aldeburgh that year – the third of the cello suites, in C major, played in Aldeburgh parish church. The mono recordings may not be state of the art, even for 1961, but they’re good enough to convey what memorable events these concerts must have been.

Rostropovich, his wife, Galina, Britten and (in background) the tenor Peter Pears in Aldeburgh for the festival. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images