Updated: Jun 11, 2020
By Cynthia Young
On a September evening in 1960, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten were seated together at the Royal Festival Theatre where both composers were having their works performed. It was the British premiere of Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 40 and Msitislav Rostropovich, one of Shostakovich’s students was the cellist. Britten was so impressed by the playing that he elbowed Shostakovich in the ribs every time he heard something amazing. It must have been quite often because Shostakovich complained afterwards that he had the bruises to show for it.
Nevertheless, he introduced Britten to Rostropovich and thus began a lifelong friendship between the composer and cellist.
Britten wrote 5 cello pieces for Rostropovich, beginning with the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65. The work was premiered the following year with Britten at the piano and Rastropovich on cello. The rehearsals for the performance, and later recording, were supposedly assisted by copious amounts of vodka. Britten worried that although Rostropovich was considered to be the greatest cellist of the 20th century, the cello part might be too difficult for him.
The 4 note motif in the final movement is a musical transcription of Shostakovich’s name, Britten’s homage to the elder statesman of music. So there you have it: an Englishman, two Russians and some vodka! And both of these cello sonatas are featured on our program!