Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 (1934) [26:29]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 65 (1961) [18:39]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op, 119 (1949) [22:15]
Jamie Walton (cello); Daniel Grimwood (piano)
rec. 16-18 February 2011, Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, Monmouthshire, Wales
Even if Shostakovich the symphonist had barely begun to emerge, he nonetheless had several masterworks to his credit in 1934 when he composed his Cello Sonata. One of these was the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work that provoked Stalin’s disapproval, propelling the composer into years of artistic limbo. The sonata is in four movements, and although the overall tone is more lyrical and genial than we associate with this composer, the minor key close of the first movement is not the only passage to feature the typical Shostakovich combination of sardonic humour and near-despair. The second movement is a ferocious scherzo - Jamie Walton tears into this in impressive fashion - but the passionate, deeply felt slow movement is the heart of the work. There are many rival versions of this sonata. I particularly admire the robust and dramatic reading from Han-Na Chang and Antonio Pappano, a not particularly generous coupling on EMI of her outstanding performance of the First Cello Concerto. The slow movement of the present performance seems underplayed when compared to Chang, and the reading as a whole is richer and more mellow. I wasn’t totally convinced at first, but on subsequent hearings I’ve happily come round to Walton’s and Grimwood’s view of the work.
Prokofiev composed his Cello Sonata for Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the first performance in 1950, with Richter, no less, at the piano. The pianist tells the story of playing it to two different judging panels, apparently for authorisation to give the work in public. I wonder if present-day artists in the free world can really imagine what it is like to work under such conditions. There was perhaps relatively little official opposition to this sonata, as it is a predominantly lyrical work, with none of the harmonic daring associated with the younger composer. The first impression the work gives is a carefree one, but subsequent listening reveals much more. The work is beautifully written for the two instruments; the composer clearly wanted to exploit the cellist’s sound in the low register. The first movement is a fine example of Prokofiev’s gift for melody, with an amusing passage where the two instruments imitate each other, and a poignant, chiming close. Even the wittily ironic second movement scherzo has a more lyrical interlude and the energetic finale has a surprisingly dramatic finish.
Britten was introduced to Rostropovich by Shostakovich at the first British performance of the latter’s First Cello Concerto, and their friendship endured until the composer’s death in 1976. The Cello Sonata was the first of five works that Britten composed for Rostropovich. The most concentrated of the three works on this disc, its five movements are over and done with in less than twenty minutes. A motif of only two notes makes up most of the thematic material of the first movement. Wistful in mood for much of its length, and often touchingly lyrical, it also features passages more powerful and overtly demonstrative than is usual from this composer. The second movement is a nocturnal scherzo whose pizzicato writing could almost have come from Bartók’s pen. An expressive, melancholy slow movement follows, then a weird march, and the work ends with a fearsome moto perpetuo. The cellist’s wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, apparently found the work to be a portrait of her husband’s wildly changing moods. This may be so, but there is a certain greyness about the writing too, and one is left at the end of the work not quite sure what the composer was aiming at.
Cellists hoping for a place on the world stage all have the same cross to bear, and that is the inevitable comparison with Rostropovich. If they are wise, they learn from him whilst forging their own sound and personality. The only time I ever saw him in concert he played with a barely controlled frenzy that bordered on the demented. Jamie Walton’s playing is several degrees cooler than this, and this shows in the performance of the Britten. Yet whilst Rostropovich’s performance, with Britten at the piano, is indispensable in any Britten collection, this performance is just as fine in its own way. Walton’s sound is gorgeous, as is that of Daniel Grimwood, made evident in the rich and immediate Signum recording. Both players are technically flawless, play with the utmost musical intelligence and sensitivity, and are totally at one in all three works.
The magnificent Dutch cellist Peter Wispelwey has exactly this programme on a well-received Channel Classics CD. I have not heard it, but it is hard to imagine how it can surpass this outstanding disc.
William Hedley 

Magnificent performances of three fine twentieth-century cello sonatas.