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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 (1934) [30:03]; Pieces for Cello and Piano (1949-1953) – The Clockwork Doll (arr. Sapozhnikov and Kirkor) [0:53]; Hurdy-Gurdy (arr. Atovmian) [0:44]; Sad Song (arr. Kalianov) [1:52]; Lullaby (arr. Kalianov) [1:22]; Spring Waltz (arr. Atovmian) [1:46]; Nocturne (arr. Atovmian) [3:06]; Moderato [2:13]; Gigue from ‘Hamlet’ (arr. Chelkauskas) [1:41]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Madrigal In Memoriam Oleg Kagan for Solo Cello (1991) [8:22]. Klingende Buchstaben (1988) [4:17]; Cello Sonata No. 1 (1978) [21:57]
Alban Gerhardt (cello); Steven Osborne (piano).
rec. Wigmore Hall, London, 26-28 August 2005. DDD
HYPERION CDA67534 [78:50]

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This is a simply marvellous disc. Steven Osborne is one of the most musical and intelligent of the younger generation of pianists, as he has proved time again, not only in his Hyperion recordings, but also in his live appearances - at the Wigmore Hall for example. Alban Gerhardt - a student of Pergamenschikov - seems to be the perfect partner. Hyperion’s recording team of Andrew Keener and Simon Eadon provides a state-of-the-art recording.

The Shostakovich Cello Sonata of 1934 is a troubled work. It is also one of his most impressive pieces of chamber music, requiring huge musical maturity from its interpreters. This it gets in spades here. Osborne begins conjuring up a lovely bed of sound - mark well, though, that he never over-pedals so there is no muddying of textures. The cello is situated fairly close in the recorded perspective, but not uncomfortably so. There are moments of exquisite shading, particularly from Osborne.

The first impression of the Scherzo is that it is slightly under-tempo, but the performers’ dynamism soon becomes clear, and as it turns out the tempo is perfect. There are some magical cello harmonics. The Largo is nothing short of magnificent, with breath-taking pianissimi and an over-riding bleakness of utterance. The brief final movement (an Allegro) finds both players demonstrating exemplary attack. On the strength of this performance alone, this CD is a real candidate for my Record of the Year!. Of modern performances of this work, this is at the very top of the tree, complementing the Rostropovich/Britten account.

Shostakovich and Schnittke make ideal bedfellows. The Schnittke works chosen here begins with the Madrigal In Memoriam Oleg Kogan for solo cello. Kogan had in fact premiered many of Schnittke’s compositions and there was a clear bond there. This is pure desolation in sound, the cello sounding curiously lost, as if unsure where to go now that its friend has left us. Gerhardt sustains the sparse lines excellently. Klingende Buchstaben (‘Sounding Letters’) is another solo work, this time written as a 40th birthday tribute to Alexander Ivashkin. It is based on the available pitch-classes from the name ‘Alexander’ – so, A-E-A-D-E. It emerges out of the silence at the end of the Madrigal, and is simply hypnotic.

Just as Klingende Buchstaben emerged out of the Madrigal, so the opening cello soliloquies of the First Cello Sonata come out of the high, ultra-delicate close of Buchstaben. The piano enters with a memorable sequence of descending chords. This is intense music – no easy ride. The Scherzo is fully worthy of Shostakovich. All credit to Gerhardt for manoeuvring around so quickly in the usually murky depths of the cello’s extreme lower register. It is like listening to a musical depiction of the scurrying of a scarab beetle. The finale’s sudden arrival is memorable, its ultra-desolate piano trills speaking of real intensity. An incredible performance.

The sequence of eight Shostakovich arrangements that closes the disc takes the playing time to just under eighty minutes. The full sequence is of eleven pieces, but physical restrictions led to the omission of three. The pieces come mostly from other, now obscure Shostakovich works and it is good to hear them here. ‘Clockwork Doll’ comes from A Child’s Exercise Book, Op. 69 (written for the composer’s daughter) and brings real relief after the unrelenting Schnittke Sonata. Both players exhibit a delightful, light staccato. ‘Hurdy-Gurdy’ - and it is, very much so - comes from the Ballet Suite No. 1 and is followed by a beautiful, contrasting ‘Sad Song’ (from Moskva, Cheryomushki). The calming influence of the Lullaby (from Victorious Spring, Op. 72) leads to a fast Waltz (from the 1949 film, Michurin) before a much darker Nocturne (from The Gadfly) clouds proceedings. This Nocturne is beautifully veiled – and the players exhibit supreme control at the end. The ensuing Moderato was actually located as recently as 1986, and was possibly written in the ’thirties. Pauline Fairclough’s notes suggest this may have been part of another projected Cello Sonata. Who knows? It is played here with luminous tone by Gerhardt. A final Gigue - from the music to a 1954 staging of Hamlet - presents heady, whirling motives in the cello.

I cannot recommend this disc enough. True, it is full-price, but I bet you will play it many more times than a multitude of super-budgets. Superb.

Colin Clarke


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