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Schnittke/Shostakovich Music for cello and piano
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934- 1998) Cello Sonata No. 1 (1978); Cello Sonata No. 2 (1993-4);
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975) Sonata Op. 147 arr.Daniil Shafran; Moderato (1934) Adagio from Two pieces, Ballet Suite No. 2 (1951)
Raphael Wallfisch (cello) and John York (piano)
Rec. St.Georges, Brandon Hill, April 1998 (Schnittke); Champs Hill, Pulborough, June 2000 (Shostakovich)
BLACK BOX BBM 11032 [77.58]

How do you feel about music originally conceived for one instrument being arranged for another? Franck’s Violin Sonata for cello is one example. If you don’t mind then this Shostakovich Cello Sonata written originally for violin will not bother you. It was the master’s last will and testament as it were, and so cellists would like to claim it as well as fiddlers. But I’m not so sure. Textures originally conceived as mostly treble-orientated are now differently balanced for example in the second movement. The Allegretto the opening seems to have lost its wittiness and ghostly humor by being somewhat sluggish in tempo and at least an octave lower.

Surely there is enough for cello not to warrant such arrangements. This one is by Daniil Shafran. Nothing is said about him in the booklet notes but he was born in Leningrad in 1923 and is well known especially in Russia as a virtuoso cellist. I must add that it is mostly a very fine piece of work and obviously done from the heart. But as Stravinsky often said "Do we need it?"

The other works by Shostakovich are miniatures. The elegiac Moderato of 1934 is in the style of the eloquently lyrical extracts we hear in the ‘Gadfly’ incidental music. The Adagio of 1951 is in a similar vein and was (to quote John York’s booklet notes) "lifted from one of Shostakovich’s ballet suites by Lev Atovmyan, and presents a glamorous theatrical big tune".

The Shostakovich sonata lasts over half an hour and the two by Schnittke last about 23 minutes and 15 minutes each but seem to be even more portentous and weighty due to their elegiac and tragic nature. This is despite the fact that they appear somewhat detached from reality and conventional formal structures. Having said that, the 1st Cello Sonata, in which Schnittke found his real musical self is in three movements: Largo, Presto (which acts as a scherzo) and a closing Largo, is not a totally unexpected form. The opening Largo could be seen as an introduction to the much longer Scherzo which in turn burns itself out and dissipates its energies into a finale. This is a threnody, which is the length of the first two movements put together.

The Second Cello Sonata, written after Schnittke had had a series of heart attacks is a valedictory work which is as elusive as is it fragmentary. It was written just before the equally elusive 3rd Piano Sonata. Perhaps one might be put in mind of some of the last works of Britten, say the 3rd String Quartet, except that Schnittke is totally pessimistic even nihilistic in outlook and in final result. Its five movements, the longest at no more than four and a half minutes, make up what might be considered a suite. It begins with an introductory section marked ‘senza tempo’, leading into an Allegro, then comes the longest movement, a Largo, followed by another even briefer, fleeting Allegro relaxing into a kind of desiccated Lento. It is here that I, for one, cannot cope with this music any more. It probably speaks with great reality and is certainly penetrating and uncomfortable but as in all late Schnittke there is little else to add. When does it ever smile? I can’t help but feel that its totally inward-looking nature achieves little more than generating sympathy. And yet and yet … perhaps we are too close to it to judge. Something nags away at me that this is probably great music and I am somehow missing the point.

Certainly these pieces could not have better advocates than John York and Raphael Wallfisch. York is a very fine musician first and foremost. His regular work on contemporary music is a quiet and vital part of out cultural life, little recognized. Raphael Wallfisch is a great cellist and they both believe in this music and transport the bare notes on the page into something beyond time and space. Recording quality, of this generously filled disc, is first class.

Quite an achievement by all concerned.

Gary Higginson

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