Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Viola Sonata Cello Sonata (arranged for viola by AnnetteBartholdy)
Among the select band of twentieth-century composers whohave brought the private voice of the viola to public attention, Shostakovichjoins the even more select majority with a single masterpiece to their credit(others springing most readily to mind are Britten's Lachrymae and Walton'sViola Concerto). The very fact that his Sonata for viola and piano would seemto be the last word from his death-haunted final years gives it a very specialplace in the repertoire. We are now doubly blessed that the transcription forviola of his much earlier Cello Sonata of 1934, brought most fully to westernattention by Annette Bartholdy's serious championship, offers us two works forviola-players from the two most liberated phases of Shostakovich's creativelife.
Comparing the early 1930s in this way to the early 1970s isonly relevant because in the first case a curtain was about to fall whichrestricted Shostakovich's artistic freedoms; the imminence of the second andfinal curtain, on the other hand, was the very thing which allowed thosefreedoms to resurface in their most refined and introspective form. The CelloSonata could have been like the audacious large-scale masterpieces that camebefore and after it, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the most bewilderingof all his symphonies, the Fourth. Instead it seems to reflect hisfellow-composer Prokofiev's thoughts of the same time on a 'new simplicity',embracing the kind of melody that 'though simple or accessible, should notbecome a refrain or a trivial turn of phrase'. For both composers, this wassomething they embraced of their own free will: Prokofiev had only just made uphis mind to return permanently to the Soviet Union when he wrote those words in1934, and the Shostakovich sonata's first performance, given by its dedicateeViktor Kubatsky and the composer that December, came over a year before thenotorious Pravda attacks on Lady Macbeth as 'chaos instead of music', whichchanged the course of what was permissible in Soviet music. Kubatsky was a fineall-round musician, but later performances, including those recorded by thecomposer with Daniil Shafran and Mstislav Rostropovich, surpassed his performance.Clearly, as Annette Bartholdy points out, the alternative versions for violamade first by Kubatsky himself and later by Yevgeny Strakhov, a respected violateacher in the 1960s and 1970s, gave other instrumentalists a chance.
Back in the early days of the sonata's performing history,the Fourth Symphony would not have passed the new censorship, and Shostakovichswiftly withdrew it, but the clarity and apparent directness of the sonatacould hardly earn retrospective disapproval. The light-of-touch cantabilemelody at the start easily evades the D minor in which it is rooted, though thesoloist soon hints at the nagging narrow intervals so characteristic of thecomposer before the pianist again flies away from the point. The second subjectin the distant key of a radiant B major, is especially poignant in the violatranscription definitively established by Annette Bartholdy from the slightlydifferent Kubatsky and Strakhov versions. Perfect for the instrument's intimatetones, too, is the whispering reappearance of the first theme at the end of themovement after a threatening development and the ensuing reassurance of themore comforting melody. The scherzo, spare but exciting, has a manic if not amechanistic edge in the ferocious ostinato patterns that accompany the simpletune, stretching viola technique and volume to the limits, while, as in theoriginal version, the rapid glissandi in the trio section pose a threat to asimpler tune. With the Largo, we reach the heart of the seriousness suggested bythe first movement. The introspective opening recitative looks forward to thesolos, for viola as well as for cello, in the later string quartets, the firstof which Shostakovich composed as late as 1938, while the song with the muteoff combines revolutionary lament with a more private grief. The Allegrettofinale begins with a wayward neoclassicism, a Mozart rondo theme gone wrong,perhaps, and soon strains at the leash. Especially surprising is the pianist'stearaway semiquavers after his disarmingly easy r??le in the proceedings. Thedeadpan ending puts the classical lid back, as if the composer has said toomuch.
Shostakovich is never afraid of saying it, though in themost refined form possible, in the Viola Sonata of 1975, last of a harrowingline including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, the last three stringquartets and the song-cycle settings of Michelangelo poems which examine deathfrom every conceivable angle. None is a conclusive last word - 'maybe I'llstill manage to write something else' was always the composer's response - andthat could even be said of the present work which turned out to be hisswan-song, completed just before his death on 9th August 1975.
Very much a witness to its painful creation was thededicatee, Fyodr Druzhinin, who in 1964 had taken up the r??le of principalviola in the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble to which Shostakovich entrustedthe premi?¿res of thirteen of his fifteen string quartets. Much of whatDruzhinin recalled for Elizabeth Wilson in her outstanding book ShostakovichRemembered is borne out in the sonata: the extreme pain in Shostakovich'scomposing hand, one manifestation of a form of poliomyelitis from which he hadsuffered for over a decade, was turned to gold in the spare but miraculously effectivetextures of the outer movements, and their telephone conversation about thepossibility of the viola's double-stopping in fourths found its way into thescherzo. This, the middle movement of the three, makes extensive use of musicfrom The Gamblers, a faithful operatic setting of a Gogol play whichShostakovich had abandoned in 1942 because his enslavement to the word wouldhave resulted in a four-hour epic. The galop of the first ninety bars is astraightforward transcription of the opera's introduction; the more sinisterwhispering which follows comes from an evasive dialogue between two craftyservants and the robust recitative-like passage at the movement is based on theservant Gavryushka's balalaika-accompanied monologue. In the outer movements,the many quotations are less direct, and several have a significance which willremain Shostakovich's secret. He defined the opening Moderato enigmatically as'a novella'. Its pizzicato sounding of the viola's open strings may be a homageto Alban Berg's elegiac last work, the Violin Concerto, which also begins witha more lyrical treatment of these notes; and in both cases they are pittedagainst an altogether more complex form of elegy, though Shostakovich isunashamedly rhapsodic in the passionate central idea of the movement, placed inparentheses by solemn piano chords. The tension between diatonic and chromaticelements is distilled in its purest form in the finale - 'an adagio in memoryof Beethoven', Shostakovich told Druzhinin, 'but don't let that inhibit you.The music is bright, bright and clear'. Shostakovich uses his in memoriamtheme, the C minor first movement of the 'Moonlight' Sonata, with extremesubtlety to touch upon its right-hand rhythm and left-hand arpeggio and tomeditate upon them in a series of increasingly withdrawn paraphrases. His owncry from the heart is the sighing figure in descending fourths introduced at arare espressivo moment of the scherzo and launching this finale (alsounaccompanied). These, and a brief reference in the very depths of the piano tothe opening of the Fourteenth Symphony, his 'songs and dances of death', arethe only elements to guide us through a near-hallucinatory quest until violaand piano at last find peace in an unequivocal