About this Recording
8.557231 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata (arr. for Viola) / Viola Sonata
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Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Viola Sonata • Cello Sonata (arranged for viola by Annette Bartholdy)

 

Among the select band of twentieth-century composers who have brought the private voice of the viola to public attention, Shostakovich joins the even more select majority with a single masterpiece to their credit (others springing most readily to mind are Britten’s Lachrymae and Walton’s Viola Concerto). The very fact that his Sonata for viola and piano would seem to be the last word from his death-haunted final years gives it a very special place in the repertoire. We are now doubly blessed that the transcription for viola of his much earlier Cello Sonata of 1934, brought most fully to western attention by Annette Bartholdy’s serious championship, offers us two works for viola-players from the two most liberated phases of Shostakovich’s creative life.

 

Comparing the early 1930s in this way to the early 1970s is only relevant because in the first case a curtain was about to fall which restricted Shostakovich’s artistic freedoms; the imminence of the second and final curtain, on the other hand, was the very thing which allowed those freedoms to resurface in their most refined and introspective form. The Cello Sonata could have been like the audacious large-scale masterpieces that came before and after it, the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the most bewildering of all his symphonies, the Fourth. Instead it seems to reflect his fellow-composer Prokofiev’s thoughts of the same time on a ‘new simplicity’, embracing the kind of melody that ‘though simple or accessible, should not become a refrain or a trivial turn of phrase’. For both composers, this was something they embraced of their own free will: Prokofiev had only just made up his mind to return permanently to the Soviet Union when he wrote those words in 1934, and the Shostakovich sonata’s first performance, given by its dedicatee Viktor Kubatsky and the composer that December, came over a year before the notorious Pravda attacks on Lady Macbeth as ‘chaos instead of music’, which changed the course of what was permissible in Soviet music. Kubatsky was a fine all-round musician, but later performances, including those recorded by the composer with Daniil Shafran and Mstislav Rostropovich, surpassed his performance. Clearly, as Annette Bartholdy points out, the alternative versions for viola made first by Kubatsky himself and later by Yevgeny Strakhov, a respected viola teacher 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 Shostakovich swiftly withdrew it, but the clarity and apparent directness of the sonata could hardly earn retrospective disapproval. The light-of-touch cantabile melody at the start easily evades the D minor in which it is rooted, though the soloist soon hints at the nagging narrow intervals so characteristic of the composer before the pianist again flies away from the point. The second subject in the distant key of a radiant B major, is especially poignant in the viola transcription definitively established by Annette Bartholdy from the slightly different Kubatsky and Strakhov versions. Perfect for the instrument’s intimate tones, too, is the whispering reappearance of the first theme at the end of the movement after a threatening development and the ensuing reassurance of the more comforting melody. The scherzo, spare but exciting, has a manic if not a mechanistic edge in the ferocious ostinato patterns that accompany the simple tune, stretching viola technique and volume to the limits, while, as in the original version, the rapid glissandi in the trio section pose a threat to a simpler tune. With the Largo, we reach the heart of the seriousness suggested by the first movement. The introspective opening recitative looks forward to the solos, for viola as well as for cello, in the later string quartets, the first of which Shostakovich composed as late as 1938, while the song with the mute off combines revolutionary lament with a more private grief. The Allegretto finale begins with a wayward neoclassicism, a Mozart rondo theme gone wrong, perhaps, and soon strains at the leash. Especially surprising is the pianist’s tearaway semiquavers after his disarmingly easy rôle in the proceedings. The deadpan ending puts the classical lid back, as if the composer has said too much.

 

Shostakovich is never afraid of saying it, though in the most refined form possible, in the Viola Sonata of 1975, last of a harrowing line including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Symphonies, the last three string quartets and the song-cycle settings of Michelangelo poems which examine death from every conceivable angle. None is a conclusive last word - ‘maybe I’ll still manage to write something else’ was always the composer’s response - and that could even be said of the present work which turned out to be his swan-song, completed just before his death on 9th August 1975.

 

Very much a witness to its painful creation was the dedicatee, Fyodr Druzhinin, who in 1964 had taken up the rôle of principal viola in the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble to which Shostakovich entrusted the premières of thirteen of his fifteen string quartets. Much of what Druzhinin recalled for Elizabeth Wilson in her outstanding book Shostakovich Remembered is borne out in the sonata: the extreme pain in Shostakovich’s composing hand, one manifestation of a form of poliomyelitis from which he had suffered for over a decade, was turned to gold in the spare but miraculously effective textures of the outer movements, and their telephone conversation about the possibility of the viola’s double-stopping in fourths found its way into the scherzo. This, the middle movement of the three, makes extensive use of music from The Gamblers, a faithful operatic setting of a Gogol play which Shostakovich had abandoned in 1942 because his enslavement to the word would have resulted in a four-hour epic. The galop of the first ninety bars is a straightforward transcription of the opera’s introduction; the more sinister whispering which follows comes from an evasive dialogue between two crafty servants and the robust recitative-like passage at the movement is based on the servant Gavryushka’s balalaika-accompanied monologue. In the outer movements, the many quotations are less direct, and several have a significance which will remain Shostakovich’s secret. He defined the opening Moderato enigmatically as ‘a novella’. Its pizzicato sounding of the viola’s open strings may be a homage to Alban Berg’s elegiac last work, the Violin Concerto, which also begins with a more lyrical treatment of these notes; and in both cases they are pitted against an altogether more complex form of elegy, though Shostakovich is unashamedly rhapsodic in the passionate central idea of the movement, placed in parentheses by solemn piano chords. The tension between diatonic and chromatic elements is distilled in its purest form in the finale - ‘an adagio in memory of Beethoven’, Shostakovich told Druzhinin, ‘but don’t let that inhibit you. The music is bright, bright and clear’. Shostakovich uses his in memoriam theme, the C minor first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, with extreme subtlety to touch upon its right-hand rhythm and left-hand arpeggio and to meditate upon them in a series of increasingly withdrawn paraphrases. His own cry from the heart is the sighing figure in descending fourths introduced at a rare espressivo moment of the scherzo and launching this finale (also unaccompanied). These, and a brief reference in the very depths of the piano to the opening of the Fourteenth Symphony, his ‘songs and dances of death’, are the only elements to guide us through a near-hallucinatory quest until viola and piano at last find peace in an unequivocal C major. No stranger or more haunting music, surely, has ever been composed on the threshold of death.

 

David Nice


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