Sonata: Yo-Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Sony SK 46486
Sonata: Lynn Harrell, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Decca 414 340-2
Sonata: Rostropovich, Shostakovich. (ADD) Multisonic 31
Suite: Lydia Mordkovich, violin; Julian Milford, piano.
Sonata: Rostropovich, Richter (ADD) EMI 72016
On first hearing this disk,
one is struck by the beauty of the cello tone throughout.
On second hearing, one notes that the Rachmaninov and Shostakovich
works stand out clearly. On third hearing, this distinction
evaporates and one realizes that the quality of all the
works on the disk is first rate, that the Miaskovsky, Stravinsky,
and Prokofiev works are equally worth the attention, and
that the Shostakovich and Rachmaninov works are merely more
The Rachmaninov work was
written at the time of the Second Concerto between the First
and Second Symphonies, and is clearly, in my opinion, an
unsuccessful sketch for a symphony. As Brahms before him
did with his Op. 34, Rachmaninov turned a failed symphony
into a successful chamber work. However, in the final analysis
the work is a little too symphonic to be great chamber music
just as it is not quite symphonic enough to be a great symphony.
This performance is somewhat on the crisp side; the Harrell
and especially the Ma performances, which are more lyrically
Romantic, are more enjoyable in the slower movements, but
this only further emphasizes the distance between the original
symphonic concept and this sonata arrangement. Both approaches
are valid, and the work is fine enough that you’ll want
to hear it played several different ways.
Those who hold to the view
that Stravinsky retired from composing in 1913 point to
the ballet Pulcinella (1920) and the Suite Italienne
arranged from it as proof, claiming that the work is not
even an arrangement of music (purportedly) by Pergolesi,
but simply Pergolesi copied out with wrong notes. What is
most amazing is how durable and engaging the Stravinsky
work is in its orchestral, cello and piano, violin and piano,
and, eventually, violin and cello versions. I have several
versions of the originals by Wassenaer, but I’d rather hear
the Stravinsky versions any time, wrong notes or no.
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi
(1710 - 1736) wrote one sensationally popular opera, then
fell ill from consumption. While in hospital he wrote his
well known Stabat Mater and then died at the age
of 26. To satisfy the market for his scant repertoire of
original music, some marvelous sonatas by an amateur musician,
one Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, published anonymously in
Holland after being performed by the violinist Carlo Ricciotti,
were ascribed by an Italian publisher to Pergolesi. They
sold very well, and only recently has their complicated
genesis come to light. Hence, Pulcinella and the
Suite Italienne are in fact after Wassenaer, not
Pergolesi. The rumor that Suite Italienne was commissioned
by Gregor Piatigorsky is, so far as I can discover, not
Prokofiev’s sonata is one
of his last works in which his style became very introverted
and ruminative. This change in style led to charges that
others were writing his music for him, as those who did
not understand the music felt it was of lower quality. Due
to diminishing energy, Prokofiev relied on students and
friends to copy out full scores from his shorthand musical
notes, but the power and originality of the music are all
Prokofiev. The route to understanding late Prokofiev lies
The Shostakovich work on
the other hand is a very early work, melodic and accessible,
rich with his pre-war optimism, but not his abrasive quirkiness.
From its first performance it was acclaimed a masterpiece,
and was even recorded on 78 RPM records, an all-but-unheard
of honor for a modern chamber work at the time. In contrast,
the Sonata No. 1 was never heard outside Russia.
The composer-approved Rostropovich
versions of the Prokofiev and Shostakovich works are in
old Soviet-era analogue sound and it is a pleasure to have
these excellent digital versions as well.
Prokofiev met Miaskovsky
in school and the two men remained fast friends for life.
Their music diverged considerably in style with Miaskovsky
writing more conservatively, but with an individual flavor.
Their music also diverged in quality, with the starkly original
Prokofiev clearly the greater talent. Miaskovsky’s music
in general suffers from probably unconscious borrowings
from other music he has heard, but when he has enough original
material, as here, the result is a fine work that can hold
its own in this concert, certainly well worth hearing.