Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Cello sonata in G minor, op. 19 (1901) [35:27]
Vocalise, op. 34 no. 14 (1922) [5:16]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Cello sonata in B minor (1860) [18:40]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello sonata in D minor, op. 40 (1934) [22:16]
Alexander Chaushian (cello), Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
rec. 2010, St. George’s, Bristol, UK
BIS-SACD-1858 [82:29]

This is a generously-filled disc of Russian cello music featuring a Borodin rarity and two masterpieces, the Rachmaninov and Shostakovich sonatas. Everything is played sensitively and with great style by Chaushian and Sudbin.

The disc begins with the Rachmaninov sonata, a four movement work completed a few months after the Second Piano Concerto. In similar vein to the concerto, this is a lyrical piece in the grand style. As one might expect the pianist has a virtuoso part, and it is this that causes balance problems in performance, with the cellist easily drowned out. Chaushian and Sudbin give the work a searching performance which emphasises its cantabile qualities. Chaushian plays with great beauty of tone, with a particularly singing legato. His playing avoids expressive slides for the most part, the few that he indulges in being tastefully done. His balance with Sudbin is not always ideal, however, and I found myself wishing he would force his tone a little more to “cut through” the accompaniment.

Chaushian’s duo with Sudbin always feels secure, the two players always sounding “on the same page” artistically. I felt at times that their rubato was a little on the luxurious side, at the expense of dramatic tension. Nevertheless the first three movements are beautifully done. A slightly disengaged feel creeps into the Finale, compositionally the weakest of the four movements, before the players rouse themselves for the concluding bars. At 35:27 this performance is about 4 minutes slower than Rostopovich’s 1959 performance with Alexander Dedyukhin, which clocks in at 31:51. Interestingly, Chaushian and Sudbin are exactly 3 minutes faster than Sonia Weider-Atherton and Imogen Cooper from 2001. This last is still the best recording I have heard for balance. The only criticism I have of this performance is that the Russian duo loses momentum occasionally, making them seem somehow slower than they actually are. However, this rhythmic freedom certainly suits the expansive Romantic style of the work.

Alexander Borodin was a gifted amateur cellist, and the cello part of his String Quartet no. 2 in particular reflects his interest in the instrument. The Cello Sonata in B minor is rather an oddity. The work has only survived in fragmentary form; the present performance is of a completion by Michael Goldstein published in 1982. Inspired by the G minor Sonata for unaccompanied violin by J. S. Bach, the first and last movements are quite Bachian in style. The work is really a series of episodes, quite pleasant in themselves, that could as well be three encores. Chaushian and Sudbin navigate its rather shallow reaches with expertise; the cellist in particular sounds more relaxed than he had in the Rachmaninov, with a considerably less virtuosic piano part to contend with.

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata is a much more interesting and substantial work than the Borodin. The composer’s first important piece of chamber music, it starts gently, but this mood soon gives way to a characteristic mixture of nightmarish foreboding, lamentation and sardonic humour. Chaushian and Sudbin respond to its challenges with a ratcheting up of the dramatic tension that was occasionally lacking from their approach before. The imaginative dimension of their playing is strong; the knocking in the bass at the end of the first movement suggests an early morning visit from the KGB. The cello harmonics in the second movement slither eerily, and the Largo has a grave simplicity. Chaushian at last sacrifices some of his tonal beauty for a more edgy sound.

This is a fine performance of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata, one that stands up to the composer’s classic 1957 account with Rostropovich. That recording, together with the First and Second Concertos of Shostakovich and the Cello Sonatas by Dmitri Kabalevsky and Karen Khachachurian, was issued by EMI Classics in a 2 CD set called Rostropovich: the Russian years EMI CZS 5 72295 2. Interestingly there is a timing quirk with this sonata also. Rostropovich recalls that, when recording the work with the composer, they played it rather faster than normal because it was a fine day and Shostakovich wanted to visit a friend in the country. This must have had a particular effect in the finale, but elsewhere the timings reveal theirs to be the more expansive performance:

The final work on the disc is the Vocalise by Rachmaninov. This work was originally written as part of his Fourteen Songs of 1912, and has undergone arrangement for numerous instruments. It is heard here in the transcription by Anatoly Brandukov for cello and piano. The Russian duo’s performance of this standard is very good; Chaushian phrases the long-breathed solo with great dexterity, and his beauty and variety of tone is impressive. The sonics throughout are up to the usual high BIS standards.

Fans of the Russian cello repertoire will enjoy an expansive performance of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata and a cracking account of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata.

Guy Aron

Fans of the Russian cello repertoire will enjoy an expansive performance of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata and a cracking account of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata.

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