SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata / Violin Sonata

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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Violin Sonata • Cello Sonata

If one surveys the output of Dmitry Shostakovich as a whole, his chamber music is dominated by the fifteen string quartets [Naxos 8.550973 through 8.550977] that pervade the latter part of his career. Apart from these, he also left his mark on the piano trio [Naxos 8.553297], the piano quintet [8.554830] and the accompanied sonata - those for cello, violin and viola counting among his most significant instrumental creations.

Much the earliest of these is the Cello Sonata, the appearance of which must have seemed anomalous in an output that, for much of the preceding decade, had been devoted to music for the stage. In 1933, however, Shostakovich produced his First Piano Concerto [8.553126] and his Twenty-Four Preludes for piano [8.555781], both pieces evincing a desire to work within classical formal constraints. Written in August and September the following year for Viktor Kubatsky, who gave the première with the composer in Leningrad on 25 December 1934, the Cello Sonata furthers this thinking – each of its four movements following Classical models in spirit, if not always to the letter.

The Moderato begins with a pensive if restless melody from cello over a closely-related piano accompaniment. This builds to a brief climax, after which the second theme is heard, a more tranquil idea that gives full reign to the cello's expressive qualities. After a repeated-note codetta, the exposition is repeated literally; then the development section commences with an impulsive discussion of the first theme (the cello initially playing in pizzicato), ominously underpinned by the repeated-note idea in the piano. The second theme restores a measure of calm, but instead of the expected reprise, the piano now begins a walking-bass motion over which the cello unfolds a halting version of the first theme to serve as an uncertain and not entirely conclusive coda.

The Allegro is among the earliest of Shostakovich's bracingly sardonic scherzos, though without the element of bitterness often to the fore in his later works. The piano introduces the rhythmically forceful, folk-inflected main theme over a churning cello accompaniment, with both instruments then sharing in its continuation. The trio is an arresting invention that makes prominent use of cello glissandi, before a largely straightforward reprise of the scherzo music and a brusque coda. The Largois a 'romance' that draws on a lineage taking in Tchaikovsky and even Rachmaninov. The yearning initial cello phrase gradually opens out into a restrained but expressive melody; one that builds in an unbroken arc of intensity to a central climax where the theme is powerfully restated. This dies down to an affecting passage where the theme migrates to the piano while the cello maintains a ruminative counterpoint, before both instruments combine in a poignant coda.

The Allegro that follows is, for Shostakovich, an unusually clear-cut finale. It commences with a sprightly piano theme that is soon taken up by cello and twice extended with intensive passage-work, in what are episodes of a modified rondo design. At its centre is a contrasting episode, replete with the mordant wit typical of the composer at this period, before the movement passes into a final restatement of the main theme and is rounded off with an appropriately curt final gesture. Shostakovich's other string sonatas emerged in his last decade, with the Violin Sonata among his most uncompromising pieces. Its genesis came about by accident, the composer delivering his Second Violin Concerto [8.550814], intended as a sixtieth birthday present for David Oistrakh, a year early in 1967. He made good the error with the Violin Sonata, composed from August to October 1968, and first given in Moscow by Oistrakh with Sviatoslav Richter on 3 May 1969.

The work opens with an Andante, the expressive restraint of which is both reinforced and also undermined by the fractured discourse between the two instruments. The piano opens with a fragmentary idea that is soon complemented by the violin's more linear response, growing in intensity and given added plangency by sparing use of multi-stopping. There follows a more animated passage (dance-like were it not for its stylized inflexibility), before matters come to a virtual halt. Out of this the first theme re-emerges, interrupted by a passage in which the violin plays sul ponticello. Although the second theme reappears, the music cannot dismiss the chill atmosphere established, and the movement closes amid repeated-note piano phrases and spectral violin gestures. The Allegretto is among Shostakovich's most abrasive and dissonant scherzos. From its angry initial confrontation of violin and piano, the movement moves on to an idea of grimly sardonic humour, then to an extended passage in which constituent motifs from both themes are aggressively tossed from one instrument to the other. At the centre, the first idea is once more taken up, now building in intensity to its climactic restatement and thence to a conclusion of grating defiance.

The Largothat concludes the work is also the last occasion on which Shostakovich used the form of the passacaglia, a sequence of variations on a theme frequently confined to the bass register, to structure an entire movement. The theme itself is stated starkly by both instruments at the beginning, before the first variation begins with unaccompanied pizzicatos on the violin. The piano makes its entry in the more flowing second variation, before the tempo increases markedly in the third. The fourth variation brings a more expressive dialogue, presaging the detached gestures of the fifth and the lyrical restraint of the sixth. The capering seventh variation again effects an increase in tempo, continued in the eighth and ninth as the movement builds in cumulative intensity to explosive cadenzas for piano then violin. At the apex of this eleventh variation, the piano reintroduces the passacaglia theme and the instruments combine in a statement of heartfelt anguish. The final three variations now gradually unwind the accumulated emotion, after which the passacaglia theme is heard on piano for a final time and the spectral violin writing from the first movement returns to close the work in a mood of disquieting calm.

Very different is Shostakovich's score for Alexander Faintsimmer's The Gadfly (1955). The film itself, which tells of a freedom-fighter in the struggle for Italian unification, is very much a Soviet propaganda tool that made little impact in the West, but the music has become the best known of all Shostakovich's film scores, especially in the suite compiled by his amanuensis Lev Atovmian. Indeed, the Romance has assumed the status of a Shostakovich 'lollipop', not least through its use as the signature tune in the 1980s television drama Reilly, Ace of Spies, and works equally well when its melody is played on cello rather than on the original violin. The Nocturne was written with cello in mind, and its more searching demeanour is particularly well suited to that instrument's capabilities, here given their head in musicwhose very evocativeness could only be from that of a seasoned film composer.

Richard Whitehouse

Disc: 1
The Gadfly, Op. 97 (excerpts) (trans. D. Yablonsky
1 I. Allegro non troppo
2 II. Allegro
3 III. Largo
4 IV. Allegro
5 I. Andante
6 II. Allegretto
7 III. Largo
8 Romance
9 Nocturne
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