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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Sergei RACHMANINOV
Cello Sonata in G minor, op 19
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH
Cello Sonata, Op 40
Gwyneth George (cello) Alberto Portugheis (piano)
Rec Swansea, 1970/71 (ADD)
GUILD GMCD 7219 [54.56]

 

Guild

 

My love for cello music is well known. To add to the interest of this disc Gwyneth George comes from Swansea. Snap! She has studied with Enrico Mainardi and Paul Tortelier. I have had the pleasure of talking to Alberto Portugheis and his recordings of Ginastera’s piano music are a must for listeners but only great pianists need buy the music with a view to playing it. He is a fine player and a modest man. So I was almost converted to the disc before I listened to it.

I was not disappointed. The balance is truly admirable and the big Rachmaninov chords do not swamp the cellist. Pianists like Richter and Barenboim did just this producing a graveyard of instrumental soloists that they accompanied. The Rachmaninov sonata is a fine piece. No one could mistake it for the work of any other composer. I have never heard the scherzo second movement played better. It is, a complete revelation and I have known and loved this sonata for almost 40 years and used to play it. The menace is truly wicked and the slow movement is a testament of humanity. All feeling is here. Here is writing that any composer should study to see how to produce a truly brilliant slow movement. And these excellent performers avoid sentimentality. My word, this is good! The finale is a good example of nobility in music without pomposity or indulgence. The tender second subject is marvellously realised. The question is: why did Rachmaninov write a sonata for cello? Why not a violin? Is it because Dr Dahl was a amateur cellist? Whatever the reason I am glad that he did. It is really a splendid piece.

The Shostakovich is a good piece but I have reservations about it - particularly the frantic scherzo. The second movement, it is what I call 'locomotive music' and repeated piano notes. The high broken quick chord figures on the cello are irritating. The cello is a beautiful instrument and does not lend itself to shrieks however subdued Shostakovich makes them. But this is a fine performance, straightforward, lacking in any excesses. It is honest - letting the music speak for itself. There are moments in the slow movement that are too beautiful. As for the finale I am not sure that Shostakovich’s sardonic humour suits the cello. It certainly suits the piano. The music is simple but perhaps a little banal. And can you detect Haydn’s Surprise Symphony here? But the performance is convincing and I enjoyed it!

David Wright

Hubert Culot has also listened to this disc

Rachmaninov composed comparatively little chamber music, i.e. if one excepts his numerous pieces for piano or two pianos. Besides his Trio Elégiaque No.1 (1892) and the substantial Trio Elégiaque No.2 (1893) in memory of Tchaikovsky, the Sonata in G minor Op.19 for cello and piano, completed in 1900, following three fallow years after the disastrous première of his First Symphony, is his most important chamber work. It is on a grand scale: a lengthy first movement with a long introduction leading into an Allegro moderato roughly cast in sonata form. This is followed by a somewhat fantastical Allegro scherzando alternating nervous gestures and a more relaxed melody. The lyrical and nostalgic Andante rises to an impassioned climax after which the intensity recedes before a last fit of passion. This warmly romantic piece is capped by a lively Allegro mosso which eventually concludes the sonata in a brilliantly affirmative mood.

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata Op.40 was completed in 1934, i.e. in a period of great personal turmoil and – most importantly – after the completion of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk which would soon cause Stalin’s rage and put Shostakovich in a difficult situation vis-à-vis the régime. The impact of censure on Shostakovich’s musical progress had him adopting a rather ambiguous attitude throughout the rest of his creative life. As a further result, his chamber works will always be deeply personal statements and, to a certain extent, reveal the "real" Shostakovich. However, his Cello Sonata predates the revelatory set of string quartets and, as already mentioned, has a close connection with the composer’s intimate life at the time of its composition. As Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, it is a big romantic piece although Shostakovich’s lyricism is completely his own. The piece brims with long passionate melodies, whenever necessary, as in the first and third movements. The first movement Allegro non troppo’s structure has much in common with that of Rachmaninov’s piece. It is also followed by a Scherzo, a moto perpetuo driven along by ostinati (in fact a typical Shostakovich scherzo). The slow movement is a rather oppressive meditation (one sometimes thinks of the Largo of the Fifth Symphony or the impressive Passacaglia of his First Violin Concerto). Quite characteristically also, Shostakovich concludes his Cello Sonata with a lively, slightly sardonic Rondo.

Both pieces have in fact much in common, be it in their global structure or in their emotional background. Both are also highly characteristic of their respective composer, coincidentally both in their early thirties at the time of composition. As such this coupling is quite revealing in spite of the enormous stylistic gaps between both composers.

The present performances, recorded as far back as 1970 and 1971, are very fine and quite satisfying, though the recorded sound may at times show its age. There may be better performances available around (I for one still cherish Heinrich Schiff’s wonderful performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata recorded by EMI years ago) but these performances have much to offer.

 

Jonathan Woolf also reviewed this last month


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