In 1961 the USA and Soviet Union were competing on numerous fronts. JFK's first year as President was a busy one. The year will perhaps be best remembered for the developments in the Space Race, with Yuri Gagarin being the first man in space on April 12. Less than a month later, America showed it wasn't far behind by launching Alan Shepherd into orbit. August 13 saw construction commence on the Berlin Wall, further souring relations in Europe. This was after the US was left red faced by the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion on April 17. Away from the US-Soviet tension, One Hundred and One Dalmatians was released on January 25, Luciano Pavarotti made his operatic debut on April 29, and Dame Joan Sutherland was awarded Australian of the Year. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears also gave their first performance of Winterreise.
On September 21, 1960, the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra gave a concert in London's Royal Festival Hall. The programme included Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, performed by Mstislav Rostropovich, and Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Both composers were at the concert, and it was the first time Britten had seen Rostropovich play live. The two composers were sitting next to each other in a box, and whenever Britten admired something in Rostropovich's playing, he poked Shostakovich in the ribs and remarked on how marvellous it was. Shostakovich later confided to Rostropovich that his ribs were bruised as a result of Britten's awe. After the concert, Shostakovich introduced Britten to Rostropovich, although at that time, rather awkwardly, Rostropovich wasn't really aware of who Britten was, and thought Britten to have lived some 300 years earlier. Rostropovich was an obsessive commissioner of new works, and once things were smoothed over, Rostropovich insisted Britten should write a piece for the cello. It was to be the first of five works Britten would write for the cello. Britten and Rostropovich premiered the resulting Cello Sonata at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1961. Before the first rehearsal, both were said to be so nervous that several large whiskies were needed before they could begin.
Britten takes full advantage of the fact that he wrote the piece for one of the greatest cellists of all time. The Sonata is full of powerful writing and plays to Rostropovich's strengths of pizzicato, harmonics and chords. Britten had obviously tailored the piece to suit his favourite aspects of the cellist's playing, and as a result Rostropovich immediately loved the piece. Unusually, the Sonata is written in 5 movements, with each movement taking on a different character. The piece is very conversational throughout, carrying on from the Dialogo of the first movement. It is somewhat neglected next to the Sonatas of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Shostakovich and Prokofiev from the 20th Century, but the strength of character in the writing makes Britten's Cello Sonata an absorbing work. Below, Britten, Rostropovich and Shostakovich join forces in the first movement of Shotakovich's Cello Sonata in D Minor.