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Russian Ballads
Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Ballade in C minor, Op.15 (1912)
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934)
Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op.2 (2016) (world première recording)
Sergey Prokofiev
Cello Sonata, Op.119 (1949)
Adagio, Op. 97bis (from Cinderella, Op.87) (1944)
Gabriel Schwabe (cello)
Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. 2021, Sendesaal Bremen, Bremen, Germany
NAXOS 8.574377 [78]

It seems that the first item on this disc of Russian music for cello and piano rarely has an outing. That is hard to understand given its rich and satisfying sound. Written early in Prokofiev’s career, the Ballade already exhibits his dark and brooding style. In many of his later works, he would perfect this style, easily identified as his. The opening theme from the cello, passionate and searching, finds a hesitant accompaniment from the piano. The second subject, with its spikiness and irony, is also recognisably Prokofiev. The instruments then find themselves at odds at various times, but eventually find an understanding that allows the Ballade to reintroduce the opening theme and to conclude on a calm though rather rueful note.

Shostakovich also wrote in a way that can be immediately recognised as obviously his. The Cello Sonata is no exception. He was a master at writing music that makes one think and that expresses man’s deepest emotions, oftentimes reducing people to tears. He was a chronicler of the times his country went through, so his music is often heavy with nostalgia, regret, sadness and much besides. It spoke to people in a code which often eluded the authorities.

The sonata begins thoughtfully, then a disturbed atmosphere appears while the second theme restores some calm. It all shows how well Shostakovich wrote for the cello, to which he often gave his most searching and poignant melodies. The first theme is revisited but in an uncertain way that offers no resolution. The second movement is an early example of Shostakovich’s skill at writing bitingly sharp scherzos. The piano is given particularly pithy and spiky phrases before the movement finishes in a flurry of notes after three minutes of heightened activity.

The Largo is romantic in style but a sad and reflective poignancy dominates. The cello hands the theme to the piano before they share the expressively touching conclusion. The Allegro finale begins as if all the preceding angst has dissipated. The opening is suitably upbeat and merry, though there is also a contrastingly trenchant theme that takes the short movement on to a restatement of the main theme and towards its abrupt and curt conclusion.

I remember when I first came across Evgeny Kissin. In the early 1980s in a record shop in Moscow I bought his vinyl disc recording of Chopin’s two piano concertos, recorded when he was but 12 years old. He was yet another Wunderkind the Soviet music school seemingly produced in abundance; whatever else, no one could criticise the high quality of the tuition that people with talent might be afforded. Kissin has gone on to have a fantastic career as a pianist. I was not aware that he also composed, so this world première recording of his cello sonata is of great interest. It again shows how much music from that country has sad undertones. The sonata is heavy with sombre themes from the very first note. There is no let-up from this mood which, of course, the cello seems made for. Its dark and inward-looking reflective nature eventually plumbs the deepest register before coming to a conclusion.

Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata sounds as if it has taken the baton from Kissin. It begins at almost the same depth Kissin’s sonata finishes at. It was composed at a time when Prokofiev saw most of his music banned after the Zhdanov decree of 1948. Like many fellow Soviet composers, he sought to write music that spoke more directly to people. That was in response to the authorities’ objection to “formalism” in music. As the law of unintended consequences would have it, such decrees may give birth to great music. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony premiered a decade earlier was presumably “a Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism”.

Prokofiev’s Sonata serves as another fine example. The booklet notes say: “the work’s formal and expressive subtleties have since made it among the most often heard of such pieces in the modern repertoire.” The cello can supremely express the deepest of emotions, and it does so beautifully with the Sonata’s lovely melodies. After a most affecting Andante grave with its memorable tunes, the short Moderato has Prokofiev in ballet mood with a tune one can easily imagine being danced to. The finale marked Allegro, ma non troppo similarly begins with a jolly tune. The instruments are in dialogue before the central section injects a more serious note, though the interplay here is equally effective. A restatement of the work’s opening theme is used to build to its climax. The sonata ends on a satisfying and gentle note.

The disc’s final offering is an arrangement of the Adagio from Prokofiev’s ballet Cinderella, made for Alexander Stogorsky. (He changed his name to distance himself from his famous brother, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who had left Russia in 1921.) The Adagio describes the first dance of Cinderella and the Prince; it has secured a firm place in recital repertoire and as an encore piece.

This disc is delightful, and the well-chosen pieces certainly show the cello in all its majesty. Gabriel Schwabe elicits a gorgeously warm tone from his instrument. He gets perfect accompaniment from Roland Pöntinen, whose career as a soloist and an accompanist has been crafted over more than forty years. His partnering with Schwabe confers its own stamp of approval, and is well deserved.

Steve Arloff

Published: November 25, 2022

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