Russian Connections

Stravinsky – Suite Italienne
Britten – Cello Suite No. 3, Op. 87
Tchaikovsky – Valse sentimentale from 6 Pieces, Op. 51
Tchaikovsky – None But the Lonely Heart
Rachmaninov – Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19

Joy Lisney – cello
James Lisney – piano

The Russian Connections Tour reached its conclusion at the start of this week at London’s Kings Place. This relatively young concert hall lived up to its claims to be a true hub for the arts, a stones throw from Kings Cross Station. We were particularly delighted with the futuristic car parking arrangements which involve driving into a lift which carries the car down into a subterranean car and cycle park… The concert hall itself is impeccably managed and provided state of the art video and recording facilities for our concert, samples of which are now available on YouTube!

Here is the Britten Suite. Head over to my channel for more…

We visited many places on this tour, some familiar, some quite new, from the Leipzig Gewandhaus to some charming smaller venues tucked away in the most unexpected places.

The ‘prologue’ to the Russian Connections tour was a very special concert in northern Germany, in the Sendesaal Bremen. Our concert was part of the Konzerte im Dunkeln series and as such, took place in absolute darkness. One cannot help suspect that British health and safety laws would forbid such a thing… Particularly in a hall seating a few hundred people!


Swung by Bruge on the way to Bremen…

Although we did not perform our complete Russian Connections programme, all four composers were represented and Britten’s solo suite took centre stage, after a contemplative opening of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. After recovering from the initial surprise at the removal of all light – it is amazing how dark it gets when there is absolutely no light pollution whatsoever – I felt that it was a liberating experience for both performers and audience. On stage my greatest challenge was not the physical one of navigating round the instrument, but rather remembering to keep projecting the music out into an audience I could not see.


Leipzig’s famous Christmas market

Despite the Russian theme of this tour, it was at a small but charming venue on the east coast of England that we got very close to a part of our programme in geographical terms. Clinging onto land with the wetlands of the River Colne stretching into the distance, Studio Music is the ultimate in quirky concert venues and despite its diminutive size has played host to such giants of the music world as Dame Emma Kirkby. The building is at once a home, an art gallery and a concert hall and the audience surround the players on all sides, some of them even sitting up the stairs on specially procured cushions. Only a few miles up the coast is Aldeburgh, where Benjamin Britten made his home and composed the
Third Suite for Cello.

Britten takes us on a journey from the bleak Suffolk mud-flats, through a rich heritage of western music with Bach’s solo suites clearly hovering over the composer’s shoulder, finally reaching a climactic outburst where western structural sensibility and Russian passion are combined in an extensive Passacaglia. The energy reaches a critical peak and suddenly dissipates, revealing the skeleton of the piece – three simple Russian folk songs and the melancholic Kontakion from the orthodox church.


Benjamin Britten embraces Mstislav Rostropovich – the dedicatee of the 3rd Suite (Photography: Erich Auerbach/Getty)

The rest of our programme is quite clearly Russian, but the Connections are perhaps not quite so obvious. Stravinsky’s colourful Suite Italienne opened each evening, a veritable kaleidoscope of timbre and sentiments as befits its origins as the ballet Pulcinella, a comic Punch and Judy tale first performed at the Paris Opera with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s collaborator in this arrangement was the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who provides the link to our second half, since he arranged the two Tchaikovsky pieces which followed the interval.

The ravishing Rachmaninov Sonata completed our concert with two connections. Firstly there is the fact that Rachmaninov took inspiration for many of the melodies in this piece from the Russian liturgy, thus linking back to Britten’s quotation of the Kontakion. The second connection is a personal one: my father James studied the piano with the pianist Phyllis Sellick, who was a great friend of Rachmaninov. When I was much younger and just at the beginning of my cello playing life, Phyllis requested that we play this piece for her. However she suffered a stroke and passed away before I ever learnt it, giving us an added sense of poignancy each time we perform this music.

I so enjoyed performing this programme and will be sad to part ways with these pieces, though of course I am sure to come back to them in the future with new ideas and new experiences behind me.

I would like to thank all the venues who hosted our concerts and most importantly the audiences who came to hear us!

That’s all for now,



The Russian Connections Tour visited:

Sendesaal Bremen (Germany),
Mosterdzaadje (Santpoort-Noord, Netherlands)
West Road Concert Hall (Cambridge)
Pittville Pump Rooms (Cheltenham)
Hindhead Music Centre (Surrey)
St. George’s Bristol
Pollok House (Glasgow)
Studio Music (Brightlingsea)
Gewandhaus Leipzig (Germany)
Kings Place (London)


— with thanks to Beare Violins Ltd. —

Britten’s Suite for Cello, Op. 72

Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, Rostropovich had just given the London première of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. Britten, personally invited into the green room by Shostakovich, soon committed himself to writing a cello sonata which he duly completed and then recorded with Rostropovich in 1961. This was the beginning of one of the most fruitful composer-performer relationships of the twentieth century. Within a few years, Britten completed his Cello Symphony, which remains a giant of the cello concerto repertoire. The three solo suites were written over the next ten years and are widely considered to be the greatest addition to the solo repertoire since J.S. Bach’s six suites.

Rostropovich, Oistrakh, Britten and Shostakovich

In 1964 Britten presented Rostropovich with the Suite for Cello op. 72 as a Christmas present, inspired by a performance of Bach’s cello suites. This large work is in six diverse movements, split into pairs by three ‘canto’ movements which function like the Promenades from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition– always recognisable but appearing in new guises with the development of the suite. They help to guide the listener through this complex piece – Britten was clearly aware of the challenges of understanding solo cello music in this style. Despite having never played the cello, Britten achieves superbly idiomatic writing as he stretches the instrument to the limits of possibility.

Canto Primo

The piece opens with the optimistic Canto Primo, full of rhetorical gesture and dramatic harmonic tension-and-release. Britten thickens the texture by using double-stops throughout, often writing out three-note spread chords. It fades away to a glimmering D major and out of the brief silence, the first of our six movements emerges: Fuga.

The writing of fugues found a new vogue in the twentieth century, most notably with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues op. 87. Both these composers were directly inspired by Bach’s monumental benchmark: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. None of Bach’s solo cello suites include fugal movements, because they are structured traditionally as dance suites, but he was not averse to writing fugues for other string instruments: each of his solo violin sonatas begins with a Prelude and Fugue pairing. Britten includes fugal movements in all three of his solo cello suites, recognising the advancement of cello technique that took off during the twentieth century, and rises impeccably to the challenge of creating a fugue for an instrument most suited to the realisation of one line. The cellist’s task is to bring out the different voices by variation of the tone quality and careful phrasing. The subject is exposed and developed, growing to an explosion which rapidly falls away into glassy harmonics, a ghost of its former self. Britten follows this movement with the Lamento, a simple song which blends straight into the Canto Secondo: Britten’s second use of his ‘Canto’ theme is this time suffused with melancholy.

The fiery Serenata springs out of the ashes and is played entirely by plucking the string with both hands. It has an unmistakably Spanish character and Britten uses the cello like a guitar with cross-rhythms rooted in flamenco traditions. Like its fellows, this movement outlines a clear journey, culminating in a breathless ascent to a solitary top A, with the piercing feeling of thin air and bright clarity only experienced at extreme altitude.

Britten’s next movement is another dance – the Marcia begins with the bugle calls and drums of an approaching military band, achieved by tapping the wood of the bow on the string – col legno. The music gets closer and closer until a powerful singing outburst obliterates the martial precision of the opening. The marching band is soon heard again, already retreating palely into the distance, defeated. The ensuing Canto Terzo marks a new milestone of the suite, building to a passionate climax with clashing discords and then fades away, appeased, to a deserted open D string.


This note becomes the drone for the ensuing Bordonean eclectic movement paying homage both to the Baroque style of monodic recitative over a droning bass and Balinese tuning and texture. Britten toured Japan and Indonesia in 1955-6 and integrated material borrowed from Japanese, Indian and Balinese music with his own style in subsequent works. The Prince of the Pagodas (1957), for example, is scattered with gamelan techniques from Bali.

Finally the devilish Moto Perpetuo e Canto Quarto explodes out of this meditative stasis, a flurry of chromaticism, which surges up and down, spinning across the range of the instrument. Suddenly, the Canto Quarto bursts through, and its dazzling sunlight battles to and fro with the determined flood of notes. As we approach the end, the two themes are blurred and then united for the final gallop to the finish.

Benjamin Britten

Britten composed his Suite for Cello with a performance of Bach’s six suites imprinted on his mind. Despite the greatness of this music, the most powerful aspect of his inspiration must have been Rostropovich’s phenomenal virtuosity and vitality of expression, blessing these pieces with a theatricality and communicative force unsurpassed in music for solo cello.

Recommended recordings:

Mstistlav Rostropovich ‘Britten Cello Suites 1 & 2’

Alexander Baillie ‘Britten Cello Sonata, Suite No. 1

© Joy Lisney 2012