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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134 (1969) [33.26]
Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 (1975) [34.29]
Oleg Kagan (violin)
Yuri Bashmet (viola)
Sviatoslav Richter (piano)
rec. Moscow Conservatory Grand Hall, 17 May 1985 (violin), 26 September 1982 (viola)
ALTO ALC1328 [67.59]

Shostakovich wrote three sonatas for string instrument and piano, the cello sonata Op. 40, which is a relatively early work, dating from 1934, and these two, which are among his last works. Like others of his late works, such as the fourteenth symphony and the Michelangelo Songs, they are dark and haunted by death. They are nonetheless masterpieces of their kind and valuable additions to the repertory.

The violin sonata seems to have been loosely modelled on Prokofiev’s F minor violin sonata, Op. 80, of 1946, and like it was written for David Oistrakh. It begins with a tone row, though the work is not serial, and continues with a kind of melancholy dance. The second movement actually is a dance, though without gaiety and with a good deal of harshness. The finale is a set of variations, uncompromisingly bleak and austere.

The viola sonata, actually the composer’s last completed work, is more varied in mood. It begins, very strangely, with pizzicato notes on the viola before a mournful line gets going. The second movement, as in the violin work, is a dance, but a more cheerful one. Apparently it draws on music Shostakovich drafted in 1942 for an unfinished opera to be called The Gamblers. This lightens the mood. Shostakovich gave the finale an unofficial subtitle: either Adagio in the memory of a great composer or Adagio in the memory of Beethoven. There are occasional reminiscences of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata (the C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2), a feature Shostakovich might have borrowed from an early viola sonata by Mendelssohn (MWV Q 14), which does the same thing.

These recordings are classics from the Soviet era, which have been reissued before but have been remastered by Paul Arden-Taylor. Indeed a previous review on MWI from 2003 (here) is quoted on the back of the jewel case. Kagan and Bashmet were not actually the dedicatees, who were Oistrakh, as mentioned, and Fyodor Druzhinin, violist of the Beethoven Quartet, but they are equally inside the idiom and give forthright performances in the style familiar from Soviet days. These are live performances but the audience is pretty quiet. Applause is retained. The recordings are obviously not up to modern standards but are acceptable and backgrounds are quiet. The sleevenote, in English only, is informative on both the works and the performers.

There are of course many other recordings of both works, though not so many with the two coupled together. Performances by the two dedicatees can be found, though with difficulty. Of more modern ones, I can recommend the one by Shlomo Mintz and Victoria Postnikova, originally on Erato and now on Elatus (0927-49554-2), on which Mintz plays both violin and viola, the latter sounding perhaps rather violinistic. These performances introduce more light and shade into the works than the present Soviet team. There is also an interesting recording of transcriptions of the two sonatas for the solo instrument with string orchestra and percussion, with Gidon Kremer and for a second time Bashmet as solo players (review). This also softens the asperities of the originals. However, to appreciate the original conception a recording like this needs to be heard.

Stephen Barber



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