Benjamin Britten conducts Tchaikovsky and Britten — With Mstislav Rostropovich

English Chamber Orchestra (Aldeburgh, 1969-1970)

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Mstislav Rostropovich — Cellist

Peter Pears — Tenor

The Aldeburgh Festival Singers

English Chamber Orchestra

Benjamin Britten — Conductor

Program notes

These recordings represent an overview of some of the headiest years of Mstislav Rostropovich's career, during which he made his name in the West. He was exiled from his homeland for his support of dissident artists, poets and musicians, and, in doing so, established himself as a Major international force for good, musical and otherwise. By the time he died in 2007 he had become a cultural Olympian, being awarded in that year the Gold UNESCO Mozart Medal. The recordings also offer some unusual glimpses of Britten himself.

Rostropovich had emerged as one of the most significant musicians in the Soviet Union when he made his Western debut in Liège in 1963. Through his friend and teacher Dmitri Shostakovich, he was introduced to Benjamin Britten. Britten was inspired by him to compose his Cello Symphony, premiered in Moscow in March 1964, and to follow it with the three Cello Suites – arguably the most important body of solo cello music since Bach. Much of this is reflected in this programme, in particular Rostropovich's association with Benjamin Britten, and through him, his involvement in the Aldeburgh Festival.

From 1948, he resigned his studentship at the Moscow Conservatoire in disgust at the Stalinist regime's treatment of his composition teacher, Shostakovich. Rostropovich continued to make political statements that he felt had to be made. And he did so through his music. Twenty years later, the year of the Aldeburgh performance documented here, he appeared at the Proms in London with a Soviet orchestra, the day after Warsaw Pact forces had invaded Czechoslovakia, playing the Dvorák Concerto. The intensity of the performance, in an atmosphere of political tension, was something those present will never forget.

It was not long after meeting Britten that Rostropovich became a regular performer at the Aldeburgh Festival. He took part in the first televised concert from the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, part of which is included here. This is a particularly poignant film, since it is virtually the only record we have of the Maltings as it was before it was destroyed by fire in 1969 and rebuilt in time for the 1970 Festival.

Tchaikovsky wrote the Variations on a Rococo Theme for Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a fellow professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, who gave the premiere in Moscow in November 1877. Tchaikovsky allowed Fitzenhagen to make radical alterations in the piece, and it was only in 1941 that his original intentions were rediscovered. However, Rostroprovich said he did not think he should discard the Fitzenhagen arrangement, since it had Tchaikovsky's approval at the time, otherwise he would not have let it be published.

Rostropovich's Aldeburgh performance displays him at the peak of his powers and is a wonderful example of his partnership with Britten, of whom this is rare conducting footage. Supported by him, the theme seems to expand under Rostropovich's bow, the music, as it were, being composed on the spot. The slow variation is suspended daringly, with moments of heart-stopping intensity, and the fleet-fingered fast sections in the coda are astonishingly dexterous, the tone and intonation never faltering even at the highest pitches.

The subject of Fitzenhagen's radical alterations came up again ten years after the premiere of the Variations when Anatoly Brandukov, one of Fitzenhagen's students for whom Tchaikovsky wrote the Pezzo capriccioso, asked whether he would restore them to his original idea. Tchaikovsky is supposed to have replied: "Oh, the hell with it! Let it stay the way it is." He composed the Pezzo capriccioso in one week in 1887. A smaller-scale work than the Variations, it is nevertheless interpreted by Rostropovich with all his poetry and intensity, making it seem much more substantial.

The excerpts from Britten's opera Gloriana (Gloriana was the contemporary poetic name for Elizabeth I) included as the second part of this programme are a highly significant addition to the composer's discography. The opera was based on the book Elizabeth and Essex by Lytton Strachey, and composed for the Coronation of 1953. It was premiered in June at Covent Garden under John Pritchard, to the general bafflement of the glittering audience. After touring in 1954 the opera virtually disappeared from view, apart from occasional concert hearings of the Courtly Dances from Act II. It began to be heard more after Britten's revision of 1966. This performance, marking the re-opening of the Snape Maltings in June 1970, took place in the presence of HM the Queen, but Gloriana had to wait until 2003 for a complete, though semi-staged, performance at Aldeburgh, almost the fiftieth anniversary of its premiere.

While Britten conducted recordings of most of his operas on disc, Gloriana was not one of them, so that this is the only hint we have of his approach to any of the score. If Britten was a highly respected conductor of other composers' music, his directing of his own is on a wholly different plane. His gestures are more free, his energy level higher. The well-chosen sections, forming an unusual concert suite, comprise the tournament from Act I, the Lute Song, also from Act I, and music culled from Act III as a kind of flashback including references to the chorus of homage, and the lute song, as the elderly Queen reviews her life. The tournament between the rivals for the Queen's favour, Essex and Lord Mountjoy, is an energetic soundscape of syncopated fanfares, much scurrying by the strings, and complex choral exclamations. The Lute song comes from later in Act I when Essex sings it in private parley with the Queen. This performance is a momentous occasion. The role of Essex was created for Britten's lifetime partner and inspiration, Peter Pears. He reprises it here in the presence of the Queen, to whom it is dedicated, and who was supposed originally not to have been over-enthused by the work but surely would have been consulted about the programming of this concert. In the opera it is sung to her great Tudor predecessor, and in this concert in her presence, it is sung, it might seem, with profound intensity of feeling, as much to Her Majesty as to Britten himself.

Chris de Souza

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