Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata
was his last work, written in the final two months of his life. It did not receive its first performance until seven weeks after the composer’s death. Its significance lies not only in that bleak fact; it is also one of the most important works for viola and piano in the canon. The first movement was described by the composer as a ‘novella’, and one wonders indeed if he had a specific book or programme in mind, such is the narrative strength of the music. Power’s performance has some beautifully subtle shadings, as well as a vast range of dynamic, from a full romantic cantilena
down to the most delicate pizzicato
and an absolutely spine-chilling whisper of sound in tremolo
on the bridge.
The second movement opens with a reworking of comparatively lightweight material from Shostakovich’s unfinished opera on Gogol’s The Gamblers
, but soon develops a more disturbing undertow as he moves into newly composed material. The opera was left unfinished shortly before Shostakovich was attacked by the Soviet establishment during the Zhdanov purge, and one wonders whether his quotation of this music and the way he subsequently undermines it might have autobiographical significance. Certainly there is no doubt about such significance in the finale, where Shostakovich interweaves quotations from all fifteen of his symphonies (and other works) into an extensive free fantasia built around a paraphrase of the opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata
. As always in late Shostakovich – one thinks of the Fifteenth Symphony
, for example – the composer’s quotations from other composers have point; in the symphony William Tell
represents freedom, and the use of the ‘fate’ motif from Wagner’s Ring
is self-explanatory; but the significance of the Beethoven is not so easy to read, especially since it extends its far-reaching tentacles in one way or another throughout the movement. David Fanning in his booklet note suggests that Shostakovich was aware that his death from lung cancer was imminent, and that he knew this sonata would be his last work. If so, he remained enigmatic to the very end. The performance from Power is matched by a stupendous rendition of the piano part by Crawford-Phillips, who matches his partner’s huge dynamic span with playing that ranges from a massive roar of protest to a barely audible whisper. This is a superb recording of a very important piece.
Shostakovich wrote no other works specifically for the combination of viola and piano, but both the sets of arrangements that make up the remainder of this disc were made during his lifetime and presumably with his consent and blessing. One cannot however say that Strakhov’s arrangements of seven of the piano Preludes
add very much to the original. In some places there is a feeling that he is trying desperately and not always successfully to find something worthwhile for the viola to add. He gives titles to each of the movements (which Shostakovich did not) and this hints at the fact that Strakhov may have felt the need to justify his arrangement – although Shostakovich also approved versions of the Preludes
for violin and piano.
On the other hand, Borisovsky’s arrangement of five pieces from The Gadfly
are an absolutely stunning piece of work. The famous Romance
works splendidly; but the whole selection shows a real rethinking of the film score in terms of viola and piano, and the opening Scene
has a grand romantic sweep that totally transcends the cinematographic origins of the music. The Barrel-organ waltz
brings a stunning use of viola harmonics which must be absolutely fiendish to play, but which Power makes sound not only natural and easy but also funny. The concluding Folk festival
is yet another Shostakovich lollipop on the same level at the Romance
– which, by the way, Power and Crawford-Phillips make sound new-minted.
This disc is absolutely essential for the Viola Sonata
but the Gadfly
pieces make a superb additional cause for heartfelt recommendation. The recorded sound is truthful and present, with just the right halo of resonance around the players who are superbly balanced with each other. The cover illustration, as so often with Hyperion, is superbly chosen and suitably atmospheric.
Paul Corfield Godfrey