In common with other composers, Benjamin Britten
was frequently inspired by the artistry of great performers who
became personal friends. It was for this most understandable of
reasons that he created a special corpus of music for the cello,
all of it for Mstislav Rostropovich: the Sonata for cello and
piano, the three solo suites, and the Symphony for cello and orchestra.
Together these masterly compositions find Britten at the height
of his powers. As a collection they rank in significance with
the music that Brahms composed for the great clarinetist Richard
Mühlfeld (though Brahms, of course, was a composer for whose
music Britten felt little empathy).
The splendid British cellist William Butt is
now in his mid-thirties, and he is developing a considerable reputation
as a soloist, while playing in orchestras in Ireland, where he
also teaches at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. These excellent
performances of Britten’s three unaccompanied suites will
do his career no harm at all.
Butt is helped considerably by the quality of
the recorded sound. There is abundant atmosphere and presence,
with a particularly pleasing bloom which generates impact while
maintaining sensitivity. This latter point is important in this
repertoire, since Britten makes such telling use of dynamic shadings
and contrasts. More even than in Rostropovich’s own recordings,
these features make their mark.
Britten composed the Suite No. 1 in 1964. The
inspiration behind this piece and its fellows was the experience
of hearing Rostropovich play the unaccompanied suites of Bach,
which therefore became Britten’s point of reference. There
is a real unity about the Suite, which has six movements ‘enclosed
and divided by a Canto marked sostenuto e largamente’ (Michael
Kennedy). Thus unity is a preoccupation, and this is something
the performer has to communicate. In fact for anyone with the
talent to tackle this music, projecting this unity must be the
chief priority. And Butt sustains an eloquent line of continuity
through the various contrasted sections, his technique always
Three years later Britten composed a second Suite,
whose personality is quite different. For example, there is a
marvellously understated Fugue, which follows the particularly
weighty tone of the opening phase, while rhythmic subtleties abound
at every stage. The finale employs that favourite device of the
composer, a ground bass, making it yet another homage to Henry
Purcell. Again William Butt has the music’s measure, though
his initial outpouring lacks the extraordinary intensity generated
by Rostropovich. It remains powerfully eloquent however, and stands
in its own right.
The Third Suite is one of the most personally
committed expressions in all Britten’s instrumental output.
There are nine movements across a thirty-minute span, but the
results are unified, not episodic. Again there is musical material
designed for the purposes of structure as well as expression.
In this piece these take the form of four Russian themes, three
of which are folksong arrangements by Tchaikovsky. The fourth,
which Rachmaninov employed in his Vespers, is the Kontakion (Hymn
for the Dead). The references to the rich possibilities offered
by this material are abundantly subtle, so that once again the
role of the cellist is to articulate individuality while maintaining
unity. The finale movement is therefore the most demanding, since
it takes the form of an extended passacaglia on the Kontakion
theme. The music is at once eloquent, individual and deeply personal,
demanding intensity of both tone and phrasing from the performer.
The style is concentrated enough to make demands on the listener
William Butt plays with clear articulation and
secure tone throughout this challenging masterpiece, which sets
the seal on this whole project. The packaging is well organised,
though as so often with this label, the font and the size of the
printed notes makes reading them something of a struggle. The
two discs come at a special price and are contained in a cleverly
designed slim case.