My first live encounter with a Britten suite was an in-your-face experience.  Steven Doane played the First Suite, Op. 72 as a “dry run” for a group of students as we crammed into an Eastman studio with barely enough floor space to not get poked with an upbow.  Mr. Doane’s association with the piece has only grown, leading to a brand new recording of the complete suites to be released this year.  I asked Mr. Doane about his thoughts and experiences playing this demanding work over the years.

Do you remember the occasion of learning the Britten First Suite for the first time?

It’s a piece that I discovered late – I was in my mid thirties when I started working on it, and it was revelatory.  It was an amazing thing to learn, but I think I had to rework it three times before I felt comfortable getting it out in public.  There’s a lot there!
I remember playing it in a recital in Dublin, along with the Bach Fourth Suite as a pair.  I did that first performance on a gut-strung cello – it was a setup I was trying at the time. I then played it in my New York debut at Tully Hall in ’91, and also at a Wigmore Hall recital a few years later.

In my Eastman days I remember you cautioning students against using recordings to learn a piece, calling this a “distortion of a distortion”.  In other words, today’s highly-edited recordings don’t accurately represent a performer’s real-life interpretation of a piece, and when we imitate recordings we distort their intentions as well as our own.  In the case of the first two Britten suites, we have recordings that were made by the dedicatee, the composer’s friend, who premiered the works under the composer’s guidance and in fact influenced the personality of the music itself.

Can you talk about to what extent you listened or referred to Slava (Rostropovich)’s version, and the process of finding your own interpretation that offered a different perspective outside the shadow of this historic (some would say “definitive”) document? 

Slava is a towering figure, and we’re all in his shadow! And we’re in his debt, too, because these things wouldn’t have existed without him.  But I don’t think he would want anyone to imitate him.  I try, almost to a fault, to stay away from recordings.  It’s a reference point, and you can’t escape the personality and the huge interpretative impetus that the guy had, the sense of tremendous sweep and drive in his playing, and that’s admirable and out there for anybody to channel a little bit.  But the actual sound and inflection I think has to come from within.

Extending this idea to editorial markings, these scores are highly edited with bowings and fingerings (even which right-hand fingers to use for pizzicatos) – much of them came from Britten but Rostropovich likely contributed or changed many markings to create the current edition.  To what extent do you depart from the editorial markings, if at all?

I went to the Britten home in Aldeburgh as a project on my Sabbatical three years ago.  I was really digging into the Second Suite during that time and actually got to see the pencil score in the library.  It’s a beautiful thing.  My colleague and I were holding the thing in our hands and just looking at it with amazement.  There’s a lot of fingerings in Slava’s part, but he’s quite faithful to the slurrings in the score, as far as I could tell.  I council my students not to always slavishly do his fingering and bowings because, first of all, his hand was immense.  And in some places his sense of sostenuto  and which bow he was on might not be comfortable.  Maybe honor the slurs, but the bow direction is completely your own decision.

In recitals you often like to talk to the audience from the stage.  What are the salient points about the First Suite that you like to convey before an audience hears the work?

You want to give them a sense of how the Cantos knit the whole thing together.  And explain a little about the intervallic material.  I sometimes play the tag end of the Prelude of the [Bach] First Suite and explain that the first chord of the first Canto of Britten’s First Suite is an amalgam of the tonic and dominant chord from the end of Bach’s First Suite.  I think there was a conscious reference there, and he builds it out of a sixth and a ninth. Then I like to give them a quick, guided tour of the different movements and the different things to listen for.  These suites are big forms and are complex enough that by giving the audience a few clues I’ve had positive feedback afterwards, “thank you for explaining a bit about the piece, it helped me follow it.”
My favorite talk was to a bunch of kids.  I played them the Fugue, and told them it was the Afternoon of a Bullfrog [sings the dotted theme to “I…am a bullFROG.”]  The bullfrog goes out to play with his friends, they get into an argument, and the stars come out a night at the end with the harmonics.  A couple kids said, “ I could hear the stars!”.
But with an adult audience, it’s a bit intimidating, because it’s somewhat abstract – there’s just one person playing that one instrument on stage.  If they know how the form evolves, they’re with you.  If you can keep it brief, it’s fun and worthwhile.

If time wasn’t a factor, and you could get into deeper discoveries you’ve made with this score over the years, what would you like to share with cellists who have perhaps heard the work a few times?

Well, the Fugue is one of the greatest works for solo cello ever written, in terms of what it does.  The way he employs barriolage in that middle section, and all the fugal devices like inversion, interval augmentation, all the stuff you learn about at school.  It’s masterful, a great structure.
And then to follow that with the Lament.  Every phrase gets longer by a certain number of notes, it just keeps expanding.  It’s a condensed marvel of compositional technique, don’t you think?  There’s just so much feeling packed into a small piece.
Then you’ve got that witty Serenade.  There’s a famous recording of Slava and Britten playing the Britten Sonata, and the Debussy Sonata is on the same record.  And I think that some of the chords in the Serenata are influenced by the pizzed movement, the Sérénade, of the Debussy – I was trying to figure out if there’s a relation.

And both pieces refer to Asian plucked instruments.

Absolutely.  I was inspired by the great recording of Julian Bream and Peter Pears, the Songs from the Chinese.

In 1995, when you recorded the Bridge and Britten cello sonatas, you also recorded the First Suite, and yet that work never made it onto the album.  What happened?

We were trying to record that piece on the stage of Eastman Theater, which is an immense space.  In order to get enough clarity, they had to mike me too closely, so you heard a lot of mechanical noise.  And you don’t have enough bloom coming from the stage, it just wasn’t the right sound environment for a solo cello piece.  They did a rough first edit, and I thought the sound is just not right.  So we just put it to bed.

Finally, at what point in the First Suite should one have their psychological freakout over the Moto Perpetuo?  Multiple choice: a) once that movement begins, b) during all those still moments in the preceding  Bordone movement, or c) after the movement begins and our brain finally catches up to what our fingers are actually doing?

I try to look forward to that movement! Frankly, I think the Bordone is the hardest thing to play.  It’s kind of a release to get to the Moto Perpetuo, because you can just go.  The Bordone has so much written-in tension, and you have to play so slowly and make such an atmosphere.

But I love the cross-action in the Moto Perpetuo, and I think there’s a jazzy feeling, with the 2 vs. 3.  The way for me to not freak out is to enjoy the rhythm, and not to play too loud.

Steven Doane’s recording of the Britten and Bridge cello sonatas can be found here.  His recording of the Britten Suites will soon be released on the Bridge label.

Next up: Things get personal with the Third Suite.