I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, so there has long been a warm place in my heart for Mstislav Rostropovich. From 1977 to 1994, the legendary Russian cellist served as music director of that other NSO – the National Symphony Orchestra. Some of my fondest musical memories are of listening to this great artist conduct and play cello with my hometown orchestra.
Rostropovich was on my mind again on Sunday afternoon, when a trio of cellists convened at the Blair School of Music to perform Benjamin Britten’s three Suites for unaccompanied cello. Britten composed his suites for the great cellist between 1964 and 1971. It’s an uncommon treat to hear all three works – unquestioned masterpieces all – performed on a single program.
Felix Wang, a cello professor at the Blair School of Music, led off with the Suite No. 1, Op. 72. He was followed in turn by Middle Tennessee State University professor Christine Kim playing the Suite No. 2, Op. 80 and Austin Peay State University professor Eli Lara playing the Suite No. 3, Op. 87. All three cellists performed from memory, an impressive feat given the length and difficulty of each suite.
Bach arranged his cello suites around 18th-century dance forms – allemandes, minuets, gigues and such. Britten pays homage to Bach by including a fugue (the old master’s favorite form) in each of his three suites.
Britten’s favorite art form, however, wasn’t dance but rather opera – one would expect nothing else from the composer of Peter Grimes. Not surprisingly, his instrumental suites came across as amazingly operatic.
I could certainly imagine the deeply felt canto movements of Suite No. 1 being rearranged as aching arias for mezzo soprano. Similarly, the andante of Suite No. 2 and dialogue of Suite No. 3 were like duets – both featured back-and-forth exchanges between bowed and plucked notes.
I don’t know whether Wang thinks of the Britten suites as being operatic, but then it doesn’t really matter. He’s such an intensely lyrical player that he could probably make an ordinary ringtone sound like “Un bel di.”
Britten’s expansive Suite No. 1 is 25 minutes long and consists of nine movements played without pause. Wang’s serious and thoughtful interpretation made these disparate movements – fugue, serenade, march, bordone, among others – sound like an organic whole. His playing in lyrical sections – which he played with a big, Rostropovich-like Russian vibrato – was unfailingly sensitive. He tossed off quicksilver passages in the finale with effortless virtuosity.
Kim’s performance of the Suite No. 2 was remarkable primarily for her tone, which was warm, melting and positively enormous. She played the five-movement, 22-minute-long Second Suite with a perfect mix of power and sensitivity. She navigated the minefield of complex rhythms in the third-movement scherzo with ease. Her performance of the finale, a ciaccona, was immediate and deeply felt.
Britten composed his Suite No. 3 just a few years before he died. The overall character of the suite is subdued and somber. Consequently, Rostropovich couldn’t bring himself to record it after the composer’s death. Lara did this sublimely beautiful work justice. Her rendition of the beautiful fourth-movement barcarolle was sweetly flowing, and she brought plenty of high drama to the fifth-movement dialogue.
But it was her performance of the final movement – a solemn passacaglia – that will be remembered the longest. She played this music with urgency, creating in the end a sense of complete awe. After the final note sounded, there was absolute silence in the hall for what seemed like an eternity (an eternity in a concert hall, of course, being about 30 seconds). The audience then erupted in applause, which was a mixture of appreciation and emotional relief.
The music world is celebrating Britten’s centenary this year. It would be hard to think of a better birthday present for the composer than Wang’s, Kim’s and Lara’s terrific performances.