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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943)
Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano Op.19 (1900)
Dmitry SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975)
Sonata in D minor for Cello and Piano Op.40 (1934)
Gwyneth George (cello); Alberto Portugheis (piano)
Recorded: Christ Church, Chelsea, October 1970 (Rachmaninov) and February 1971 (Shostakovich)
GUILD GMCD 7219 [54:56]

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 is his most important chamber work. It was completed in 1900, following three fallow years after the disastrous première of his First Symphony. The Sonata 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 will have 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 with 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 much in common: their global structure and 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 revealing in spite of the enormous stylistic gaps between both composers.

The present versions, 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 around (I still cherish Heinrich Schiff’s wonderful performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata recorded by EMI years ago) but these performances have much to offer.


Hubert Culot

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

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