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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata, Op. 40 (arr. viola Annette BARTHOLDY) (1934) [28’37].
Viola Sonata, Op. 147 (1975) [34’30].
Annette Bartholdy (viola); Julius Drake (piano).
Rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, on May 10th-12th, 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.557231 [63’07]

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata has been arranged for viola by Viktor Kubatsky (the work’s dedicatee) and Yevgeny Strakhov. Annette Bartholdy, who formed a duo with Julius Drake in 2002, has in effect collated the two versions to make her own (or as David Nice’s notes put it, she has definitively established a viola version ‘from the slightly different Kubatsky and Strakhov versions’). Bartholdy’s passion and dedication is, indeed, never once in doubt. She utilises a warm, inviting sound in the opening legato melody and subsequently brings out the yearning qualities inherent in this music, emphasising the lyric warmth at the heart of Shostakovich’s sometimes sparse lines. The last two minutes of the first movement are particularly impressive in their use of pianissimo spectral whisper.

The second movement Allegro is more effective on cello as on that instrument it carries more depth and power. Still, Bartholdy gives her all to this spiky world (and the disc is worth the minimal outlay just for Julius Drake’s sterling pianism in this movement). In Drake’s hands, in fact, the ending is positively outrageous, sounding like something from a silent film score! The interior stillness hinted at in the first movement dominates the Largo. Bartholdy threads the espressivo line expertly. The movement seems ready to end about half way through (around five minutes into its nine-minute duration) – as always Shostakovich can elongate this moment effortlessly, leading in the present instance to a memorable inner stillness. It is left to the finale to attempt some sort of closing statement and it does so by pitting the violist’s insinuating line against a spiky piano accompaniment, a tightrope between lighter music that yet manages to preserve the integrity of the exercise. Drake is superb – again - here.

The Viola Sonata is dedicated to Fyodor Druzhinin (violist from 1964 of the Beethoven String Quartet, the group that premièred 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets). It is music that requires the utmost concentration to fully realise its hypnotic appeal. Although Bartholdy and Drake cannot erase memories of Bashmet and Muntian live at the Barbican in November 2003 (review), their account shines with an integrity and a rapport with the composer’s mode of utterance that makes it an indispensable part of any Shostakovich collection. They are able to project the bleak yet sure aura of the Lento (and note how the ghostly effects around the 6’30 mark are given in an appropriately disembodied manner).

The grotesque/sarcastic elements of the Allegretto are nicely conveyed by Bartholdy. But it is the finale that fittingly forms the climax of this emotional journey. Bartholdy and Drake portray the music as the epitome of desolation that eternally strives towards some – or, more accurately, any – hint of sunlight. The plangent long lines of the viola are marvellous, but it is Drake’s tonal variety and his identification with the music that is consistently gripping. This is intensely moving music in an intensely moving performance.

Required listening.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Michael Cookson


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