About this Recording
9.70196 - MYASKOVSKY, N.: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 / KABALEVSKY, D.B.: Cello Sonata (Joost Ben-Sasson, Sternfield)

Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky (1881–1950): Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904–1987): Cello Sonata


Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky was born on 29 April 1881 at Novogeorgiyevsk (near Warsaw), the son of an engineer. His was educated at military schools at Nizhny-Novgorod and St Petersburg, where he completed his studies in 1902. He pursued his musical interests throughout this time and took lessons from Glière before, in 1906, entering the St Petersburg Conservatory where his teachers included Lyadov and Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1907 he resigned from the army, having completed his obligatory service and in the following year wrote his First Symphony, which also won him the Glazunov scholarship. After graduation in 1911, he supported himself by teaching at music schools in St Petersburg and during the First World War served on the Austrian front. In 1917 he joined the Red Army and after demobilisation in 1921 joined the staff at the Moscow Conservatory, remaining a professor of composition there until his death and exercising an influence over a generation of composers, including Khachaturian and Kabalevsky. In character he was retiring and diffident, doubtless affected by shell-shock suffered during the war, and latterly attempted to fulfil more overtly what he saw as the requirements of Soviet officialdom, abandoning the Association for Contemporary Music (of which he had been a founder member) and adopting a style more congenial to the establishment of the era. In 1948 his name was linked with those of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and several former pupils in Andrey Zhdanov’s condemnation of ‘formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies’. Remaining unrepentant, he died in Moscow on 8 August 1950.

That Myaskovsky’s cello sonatas come at either end of his composing career is belied by the consistency of style encompassing the 37 years between them. The First Cello Sonata was composed in 1911 (revised in 1935), its warmly expressive idiom redolent of Rachmaninov’s sonata from a decade before. Although they play without a pause, the two movements are subtly contrasted in expression. The first movement opens with a pensive melody for cello over a spare piano accompaniment, which becomes more intricate as an eloquent dialogue ensues. At length a more restless theme is initiated by the piano, its manner emphasized by the latter’s emphatic chords, and this gains in intensity before a return to the opening melody. The emphatic chords re-emerge for a brief though intensive development which presently alights once again on the opening melody as both instruments move towards a serene accord. Agitated figuration on piano leads directly into the second movement, its restless main theme (closely derived from the preceding material) eventually finding contrast with a more songful melody which unfolds leisurely before the restless theme reemerges with renewed intensity as it provokes the work’s main climax. From here the music swiftly subsides into a calm recollection of the work’s opening melody, in turn bringing about a peaceful conclusion.

The Second Cello Sonata was written in 1948 and dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich (who inspired a contemporaneous Cello Sonata from Prokofiev). Its three movements adhere to a more classical format, while the subtle influence of folk music is typical of the composer’s later years. The first movement commences with a rapt melody for cello over a limpid piano accompaniment that is itself rich in motifs to be developed later. The second theme brings minimal contrast in mood, being almost an interlude before the initial melody returns for a more strenuous development. The main themes are then heard again as part of a modified reprise, before the music heads to a final return of the initial melody. The slow movement is centred on a warmly expressive theme for cello that soon reveals unexpected reserves of passion when provoked by the piano, both instruments engaging in a purposeful dialogue which ultimately sees a return to the main melody as it was originally heard. The finale begins with a scurrying theme for cello over a fleet underpinning on piano. This finds contrast in the warmly emotional melody that ensues, elements of both themes then combined in a relatively brief though intricately conceived development before they are reprised on the way to a coda that focusses upon the hectic opening theme as part of a suitably decisive close.

Dmitry Borisovich Kabalevsky was born in St Petersburg on 30 December 1904. Having studied at Moscow Conservatory with Nicolay Myaskovsky and Alexander Goldenweiser, graduating in composition (1929) then piano (1930), he was appointed a senior lecturer there in 1932 and made a full professor seven years later. Riding out the 1920s ideological ferment as a member of both the progressive Association of Soviet Musicians and the conservative Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, he found his mature style over the following decade through two works which achieved an international success. The Second Symphony (1934), championed by Arturo Toscanini and Malcolm Sargent among others, unfolds with a drama and lyricism such as Prokofiev made central to his music on returning to the Soviet Union, while the opera Colas Breugnon (1938), based on a satiric novel by Romain Rolland, fuses Western European neo-Classicism and Russian folk music to potent dramatic effect.

Although his suite The Comedians (1940) has enjoyed lasting popularity, and he was among the few notable Soviet composers not to be censored by the notorious Zhdanov Decree of 1948, Kabalevsky was unable to maintain comparable success in his music of the post-war era. His later operas failed to hold the Soviet stage, and though certain piano works have remained at the periphery of the repertoire, his greatest success was with such pieces as the Cello Sonata (1962) and Second Cello Concerto (1964), whose introspective manner seems essentially at odds with the rôle of dutiful citizen to which Kabalevsky aspired as a Soviet artist, and which led him to criticize younger colleagues who pursued a more experimental path during the 1960s and 1970s. His most significant achievement was in music education - notably in the developing of a systematic programme of music in schools which ran parallel with his extensive piano and choral output for children and young people. Apart from the Fourth Piano Concerto and several overtly elegiac song-cycles, he completed only a few original compositions over the period prior to his death in Moscow on 14 February 1987.

The Cello Sonata was completed early in 1962 and given its première by Rostropovich, with the composer at the piano, in Moscow on 6 February. The first movement commences with a ruminative melody which unfolds in arcs of intensifying melody, the piano accompanying discreetly before emerging into its own with limpid exchanges. This comes to a thoughtful pause, then a nagging repeated figure on piano launches a central section where the earlier melody is transformed into a propulsive toccata climaxing with a heightened return to the main theme. From here a cadenza-like passage for cello brings a return to the earlier calm, making the defiant concluding chords the more unexpected. The second movement opens with speculative exchanges, out of which a halting waltz-like theme appears and pursues an eventful course which includes some strikingly varied writing for the cello. A return to the initial uncertainty then combines with elements of the ‘waltz’ for a pointedly ambivalent conclusion. The final movement sets off at a rapid pace, its hectic initial theme duly finding contrast in an impassioned melody to which piano contributes full-blooded chordal writing, and this mood continues across the often stormy development. At length the music subsides into a modified reprise of both themes, the prevailing activity suddenly ceasing for a return to the work’s ruminative opening melody which brings about a quiet yet questioning close.

Richard Whitehouse

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