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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40 (1934) [26:13]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Sonata in C major, Op, 119 (1949) [24:46]
Antonio Janigro (cello)
Eva Wollmann (piano)
rec. 1955, Mozartsaal, Vienna

The French label Forgotten Records never fails in seeking out recording gems, long since faded from memory. One such is this mid-fifties recording of two 20th century Russian cello sonatas played by the Italian cellist Antonio Janigro (1918-1989) and the Austrian pianist Eva Wollmann (b. 1902). Making its first outing on CD, it has been capably restored from a well-preserved Westminster LP.

The Shostakovich Sonata is the work of a young man, he was 28 when it was composed in 1934. A difficult time in Russia, it was completed just prior to the censure of his music by the Soviet authorities, who considered it too decadent and bourgeois. It was finished in a few weeks against the backdrop of a brief divorce from his wife Nina; the following Autumn they remarried, she being pregnant with their daughter, who was born in 1936. The Sonata was written for Victor Kubatsky, the principal cellist of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and founder of the Stradivarius Quartet. Shostakovich had known him for a while as they had been duet partners.

It was the playing of Rostropovich that inspired Prokofiev to compose his cello sonata. The composer heard the cellist in concert in 1949 performing Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Cello Sonata No. 2, and was so impressed he decided to compose a sonata for him. Prokofiev worked on it at the same time he was writing the ballet The Stone Flower. 1949 was a year before the composer was accused of formalism under the Zhdanov Decree, when much of his music was banned. The new sonata was premiered in 1950 by Rostropovich with Richter at the piano.

Janigro seems perfectly in tune with Shostakovich’s mind set, highlighting the virtuosity, melancholy and reflective elements. There’s great charisma in the playing with both cellist and pianist really on top of the piece. The flageolet passages for the cello in the second movement are pure and crystalline. The third movement, which feels to me like the centre of gravity is intense and bleak with an all-pervading sense of darkness.

In the sombre chorale opening of the first movement of the Prokofiev Sonata, Janigro draws a rich resonant sound. The movement is a sequence of contrasting sections which in some hands can sound rambling. Here it is held together with an eye on the bigger picture,. The piano sensitively accompanies the cello’s narrative throughout. Lyrical episodes, of which there are many in this work, are intelligently phrased. The finale is a virtuosic tour-de-force. It’s a truly convincing performance.

Quality of recorded sound is A1 throughout, with balance between the instruments exemplary. This is most definitely a partnership of equals. These are two sonatas which deserve a wider following.

Stephen Greenbank