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 Recording of the Week  Previously unreleased cello recital by Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten

This year has seen a treasure trove of releases in celebration of the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (who died ten years ago, and who would have turned ninety last month), not least lavish boxes from Warner Classics and Deutsche Grammophon. Just when we thought there couldn't possibly be anything left to add to his extensive discography, along comes this gem of a disc from the archives.

Rostropovich had met Benjamin Britten in 1960, having been introduced by Shostakovich after a concert in London. Britten promised to write a piece for Rostropovich, and the resulting work was premiered in the Jubilee Hall at the Aldeburgh Festival on 7th July 1961, with Britten himself at the piano, alongside Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, Schumann's Fünf Stücke im Volkston, and Debussy's Cello Sonata.

Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten
Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten

This recital has now been made available courtesy of the Testament label, and what a find it is. Later that month, the pair made celebrated studio recordings of the Schumann, Debussy, and Britten (they also recorded the Schubert together in 1968), but these performances should in no way be considered a mere dry run for the recording sessions, and the fact that this release presents the first performance of Britten's own Cello Sonata is exciting enough in itself!

The first thing that struck me as the Schubert began was what a sensitive pianist Britten was; his phrasing of the opening bars is expressive without being mannered. This is echoed in Rostropovich's playing, particularly in places such as the contemplative recapitulation of the main theme in the first movement. Actually, what I found myself marvelling at the most throughout the whole recital was the magnetism of Rostropovich's pianissimo playing: he really draws you in and makes you listen.

After the Schubert comes a virtuoso performance of Britten's own sonata. The last movement especially is a veritable tour de force; both performers are on fire, and it's no surprise that this closing movement is immediately encored. If I had to sum up this recital in a single word, it would be freedom. Every phrase is elegantly elastic, and there's some pleasingly delicate playing by Britten, especially in the final Schumann piece. The range of attack and articulation on offer from Rostropovich is quite extraordinary: listen to the first movement of the Schumann, or the way that he changes his tone completely between phrases at the beginning of the last movement of the Schubert, to hear his exquisite variety of colours.

Amongst the closing encores comes a surprise: the pair are joined by Peter Pears to perform the tenor aria from Bach's Cantata No. 41, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, which includes a substantial obbligato cello part. Although more stately in tempo than we might perhaps be used to nowadays, it still has an elegant tread to it that suits the plaintive qualities of Pears's voice.

As if even that were not enough to be getting on with, there's a final bonus: three days before this recital, Rostropovich performed two of the Bach Cello Suites in the Aldeburgh Parish Church, and the surviving recording of the Third Suite in C major is presented here. Again, Rostropovich made a famous recording of the complete suites fairly late in his life, but to my ears this is an equally fine interpretation, and movements such as the Bourrée and Gigue are even more energetic than in the later version.

As I said at the start, even if you own the studio recordings of these pieces, there's nothing redundant about these accounts, and I'm sure you won't be disappointed in this absolute delight of a recital!

Rostropovich & Britten

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Available Format: CD

Rostropovich: Cellist of the Century (Complete)

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Available Format: 40 CDs + 3 DVD Videos

Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon

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Available Format: CD