Schnittke & Shostakovich Cello Sonatas

0 of 5 stars

Sonata No.1 for cello and piano
Madrigal In Memoriam Oleg Kagan
Klingende Buchstaben
Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano, Op.40
Eight Pieces for Cello and Piano [arr. Atovmian, Chelkauskas, Kalianov, Kirkor & Sapozhnikov]:
The Clockwork Doll
Sad Song
Spring Waltz
The Gadfly – Nocturne
Hamlet – Gigue

Alban Gerhardt (cello) & Steven Osborne (piano)

Recorded 26-28 August 2005 in the Wigmore Hall, London

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: July 2006
Duration: 79 minutes

In Shostakovich’s centenary year it makes good sense to take his first major chamber work, the Cello Sonata, and put it in context with music it has directly inspired rather than the Prokofiev that it is so often teamed with. In Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne, Shostakovich, and subsequently Schnittke, find passionate and searching interpreters.

The Shostakovich sonata comes first, in a performance that brings forward several interesting ideas and is never less than intimate. A quiet room will be required to experience this recording’s wide dynamic range, but take this as a tribute to the duo rather than a criticism of Andrew Keener’s fine production and Simon Eadon’s engineering. Osborne’s clipped notes at the end of the first movement are mere pinpricks, highlighted by the choice of an extremely slow tempo that sets the pair more than two minutes beyond the celebrated pairing of Mstislav Rostropovich and Shostakovich himself.

Although this approach finds its credibility stretched somewhat it does nevertheless heighten the impact of the following Allegro, now coarse and urgent, pushed forward by Gerhardt with great authority. The Largo is suitably cold if understandably not probing as deeply as Rostropovich, and again the pair reach an extremely soft pianissimo at the end, allowing the finale to move with obdurate tread. At thirty minutes overall this is an expansive view of the piece, but a plausible and interesting one.

Gerhardt brings similar qualities to the Schnittke sonata, although again a little less searching than the benchmark recording, Alexander Ivashkin’s on Chandos. The tension between major and minor thirds that lies at the core of this work is found and fully explored however, and when the claustrophobic Presto takes hold Gerhardt’s low tremolo and Osborne’s stabbed notes of even lower register make a chilling sound indeed.

The shorter pieces of Schnittke, both for unaccompanied cello, are well chosen and executed, though the Madrigal is a difficult listen even for followers of the composer, as it feels very much like an imposition on an intensely private statement. Uncertain, spare and empty, the opening is entirely without vibrato and almost without rhythm, but as the music broadens in range Gerhardt works up to an ear-splitting top E – the very same note that predicted Smetana’s loss of hearing in his First String Quartet (From my Life). The effect is startling. Klingende Buchstaben ought to be more cheery, written for the fortieth birthday of Schnittke’s cellist friend Ivashkin, but that too ends in a cloud of micro-tones, a scordatura lowering the cello to barely audible depths.

Mercifully lighter relief comes in the form of eight Shostakovich pieces arranged for cello and piano (the whole set extends to eleven, three omitted here for reasons of length. A much simpler side of the composer emerges in the folksy Hurdy-Gurdy and the driving unison of the rousing Gigue with which the recital ends. Meanwhile the gentle undulations of Lullaby closely recall the melody used in the finale of Mahler’s Fourth symphony. All eight are performed with verve by the Gerhardt-Osborne team, and complete an interesting and at times stimulating release.

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