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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40 (1934)
(World premier recording of arrangement for viola by Annette Bartholdy)
Sonata for Viola and Piano, op. 147 (1975)
Annette Bartholdy (viola)
Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London, 10-12 May, 2001. DDD
NAXOS 8.557231 [63:07]


I maintain that the greatest music comes from the pen of the greatest composers even if that music is unfamiliar for the most part to the listening public. The Naxos record label, never missing a trick in the niche marketing of uncommon repertoire, have released a new recording of two of Shostakovich’s least familiar compositions. Here we have the viola sonata op. 147 and a world premiere recording of a transcription of the cello sonata op. 40 arranged for viola. Having said all that, I have been able to research a list of well over a dozen versions of the viola sonata that have all been available in recent years. However these versions seem to come and go from the catalogue very quickly and currently this Naxos new release is only the third version available from one of the major UK on-line retailers that I checked-out.

Acknowledged as being one of the strongest works in the rather narrow viola repertoire the sonata op. 147 was Shostakovich's last composition and one that I consider to be a masterpiece of late-twentieth century chamber music. Composed in 1975 at the end of Shostakovich’s life when his health was in deep decline, the viola sonata strongly reflects the composer’s acknowledgement of the proximity of death. Shostakovich drew on many influences to create this starkly beautiful and moving work. Those influences include the works of Alban Berg and Richard Strauss, with the devotional quotations from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata being the most familiar.

I recall the German Violist Tabea Zimmermann saying that when she performed the work she knew that she was going on a long journey which includes physical suffering and that she has to get fully involved. On this wonderful Naxos recording violist Annette Bartholdy and pianist Julius Drake take the listener on an eventful journey with total engagement and are more than equal to the physical and emotional demands of this sparse and haunting work. There are few notes in the score but soloist Bartholdy makes them say so much, especially in the achingly painful and bleakly poignant fifteen minute Adagio that concludes Shostakovich’s lifelong musical output. Of the alternative versions of the viola sonata that I have heard, the digital recording from violist Yuri Bashmet and Mikhail Muntian on RCA Victor Red Seal/BMG 09026 612732 is generally considered to be the finest but this searching and compelling Naxos recording with its dramatic restraint is more than its equal.

Anxious to expand the chamber repertoire for the viola, Swiss born soloist Annette Bartholdy has prepared a transcription of Shostakovich’s cello sonata of 1934. This is the world premier recording of Bartholdy’s arrangement although there have been other versions transcribed for viola made by the dedicatee of the cello sonata, Viktor Kubatsky and another from viola teacher Yevgeny Stakhov.

The cello sonata of 1934 was composed by Shostakovich during a period of artistic freedom and particular creativity with its first performance that December coming over a year before the notorious Pravda attacks on the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as ‘chaos instead of music’, which changed the course of what was permissible in Soviet music. The sonata is one of the composer’s most appealing and lyrical works and a long way off from the dissonant and experimental scores that he was to be so harshly criticised for. The duo’s expressive and compelling performance fully upholds the sonata’s rich melodic interest and is particularly impressive with the technical demands of the trio in the second movement Allegro.

The duo of Bartholdy and Drake are outstandingly well-matched and seamlessly balanced. This recording will certainly enhance the growing reputation of violist Annette Bartholdy while Julius Drake continues to impress and must be one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Naxos engineers have produced a well balanced recording with a vivid and most natural sound. The music of Shostakovich is extremely well served by this release and the viola sonata is undeniably a masterpiece. Effortlessly beautifully playing.

Michael Cookson


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