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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
Violin Sonata, Op. 134 (1969)
Viola Sonata, Op. 147 (1975)
Levon Ambartsumian (violin/viola); Anatoly Sheludyakov (piano)
Rec. Hugh Hodgson Hall, University of Georgia Performing Arts Centre, Athens, Georgia, USA, April 2003
PHOENIX USA PHCD 155 [59'51"]


Although the Cello Sonata is often recorded and well-known, the ‘other’ sonatas recorded here have (judging by the number of CD recordings available, or the relative infrequency of their inclusion in recital programmes) made comparatively little impact on the music-loving public. Small surprise, you may say, for these products of the composer’s last years are full of agony, uncertainty and mystery, to say nothing of the sparseness of texture and contrapuntal dialogue which so often typifies Shostakovich’s invention. They are intensely personal and almost private pieces, which are unwelcoming to the unwary, but rewarding to those who are patient and genuinely inquisitive. Indeed, for all their near-impenetrability, some consider them among his greatest achievements.

For the performer, they require long periods of quiet concentration, with so much that is sustained and exposed. But prolonged and hushed slow music so often gives way - in the inner movements, for example - to relentless and feverish rhythmic activity. So these pieces require a wide range of technical and tonal control, and an intimate understanding of their secrets, if they’re to add up to more than the sum of their many disparate parts.

The CD notes offer no introduction or information on this music, other than a reference to their dates of composition, dedicatees and first performers. Instead, we have bland biographical notes on the composer and - much more extensively - on the performers and the violin-maker, Boris Bratichev. Levon Ambartsumian, we’re told, graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory with a special Artist Diploma, and won prizes at the Zagreb International Violin Competition in 1977, the Montreal International Competition in 1979, and in 1981 the All-Union Violin Competition in Riga. He became ‘Honoured Artist of Armenia’ in 1988 and ‘Honoured Artist of Russia’ in 1997, since when he has appeared as soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic, Bolshoi Theater, Kirov Opera and Philharmonic orchestras of Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia and Peking - among others! Latterly, he has held teaching posts in the USA, at Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, and at the University of Georgia School of Music, where this CD was recorded.

With credentials such as these, I would have expected much more polish and authority than we have here. There’s a good deal of unpleasantly sour intonation in both high tessitura and double-stopped passagework, and unsteady tone. The bizarre Mahlerian dance music, such as in the Viola Sonata’s Allegretto movement, often sounds tame and apologetic. There’s a certain composure in the outer movements of both pieces, which eases our journey through these intensely long slow movements: but, except perhaps in the closing bars of the disc, his sound is seldom beautiful. His accompanist is more than competent, but like Ambartsumian himself he lacks the dynamic and emotional range necessary in this repertory. Indeed, neither artist plays with believable conviction.

I must also report on a ridiculously short pause between the two main works which results in the Violin Sonata’s closing pages being followed almost seamlessly by the opening of the Viola Sonata. This kind of thing can ruin the listening experience!

If it’s this coupling you’re after, there are excellent bargain alternatives in Shlomo Mintz and Victoria Postnikova on Elatus (0927495542) and - very much sounding its age, but uniquely authoritative - no less than Oleg Kagan and Yuri Bashmet with Sviatoslav Richter on Regis (RRC1128).

For the Violin Sonata, consider Ilya Grubert and Vladimir Tropp on Channel Classics (CCS16398) coupled with the 24 Preludes, Op. 34, and the Three Fantastic Dances, Op. 5: or Rostislav Dubinsky and Luba Edlina on Chandos (CHAN8343) with two sonatas by Schnittke for company. Better still, there’s Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan on Nimbus (NI5631) as part of a diverse programme including music by Penderecki, Pärt and Schnittke: and Christian Bergqvist and Roland Pontinen on BIS (BISCD364) coupled with items by Stravinsky and Schnittke. All these alternatives are a notch or two above Ambartsumian and Sheludyakov.

As for the Viola Sonata, the composer’s very last statement, you’d be better off with Lars Anders Tomter and Håvard Gimse on Somm (SOMMCD 030), which also includes a persuasive arrangement for viola and piano of the Op. 40 Cello Sonata. There’s a Naxos (8.557231) recording of the same coupling - minus the music from The Gadfly - by Julius Drake and Annette Bartholdy, which, slowish tempi notwithstanding, can be confidently recommended. Or you can have the same pieces on Calliope (CAL 9326) played on the cello by Petr Prause, with Yakov Kasman accompanying. All three of these alternatives offer more refined, dedicated and eventful music-making than Ambartsumian and Sheludyakov. The CDs themselves are also more attractively packaged.

Peter J Lawson

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