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From Darkness to Light
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Sonata for cello and piano, Op 119 (1950) [21:38]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for cello and piano, Op 40 (1934) [26:33]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Vocalise (1915/1922, trans. Leonard Rose) [6:00]
Catherine Hewgill (cello)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. October 2016 at Trackdown Studios, Sydney, Australia
DECCA 481 6562 [54:19]

Vladimir Ashkenazy needs no introduction to readers of MWI as a pianist and conductor but this is his duo partner’s debut as a soloist. Catherine Hewgill is, however, no novice. She is the principal cellist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, of which Ashkenazy was conductor for some years. She also has extensive experience as a soloist and as a chamber music player. She plays a 1729 Caroly Tononi cello, on which she produces a lustrous, burnished tone with no hint of scratchiness or rasping. Ashkenazy may be less well known as a chamber music player than in his other roles, but collectors will remember a number of recordings with the violinist Itzhak Perlman, including the Prokofiev violin sonatas, as well as several other valuable chamber music discs. He brings a native Russian’s understanding to the composers here, all of whom he has recorded extensively as both pianist and conductor, though not, as far as I know, these particular works. Catherine Hewgill explains that the title of the recording, From darkness to light, ‘reflects the many very dark passages in each of the two sonatas, which ultimately seem to resolve themselves into the possibility of universal light and hope.’

Prokofiev’s sonata is one of his last works, composed after the notorious denunciation of him, Shostakovich, Miaskovsky and others by Zhdanov in 1948. Consequently, in this work he was, as the very useful sleevenote by Raymond Tuttle says, ‘on his very best behaviour.’ It had to be played in private before two official committees before it could be approved for public performance. The work contains none of the pungent harmonies, biting rhythms and mordant humour of some of his earlier work but nevertheless manages to be characteristic Prokofiev in an apparently more genial mood. It was inspired by a performance of a cello sonata by his friend Miaskovsky and is his only work for the medium. Indeed, he wrote relatively little chamber music, but it is all worth hearing. This sonata is in three movements It begins with a slow and sombre theme on the cello alone before the piano joins in. The second movement is witty and playful but without his usual mordant humour. It features a catchy tune, which would have pleased the authorities. The finale is a flowing allegro which develops into a stamping dance before leading into a final triumphant statement. Despite the need to comply with official requirements, this is a good work.

The Shostakovich sonata, by contrast, is one of the composer’s earlier works. It was written in 1934, when his reputation was riding high on the success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. As is well known, that work was denounced by Stalin, probably personally, in 1936, which permanently affected Shostakovich’s career. However, this sonata was written earlier when it was Shostakovich’s private rather than public behaviour was an issue. Shostakovich, who had been married for only two years, turned out to be having an affair with a young student. His wife divorced him; they were later reconciled and remarried in 1935. The work was written during their separation. It is in four movements. The first movement is in sonata form, though the recapitulation begins with the second theme rather than the first. The second movement is a perpetuum mobile. The third is a dark and melancholy slow movement. The finale is in Shostakovich’s most pungent and ebullient manner. This work is quite different from the bleak Violin and Viola sonatas which Shostakovich was to write at the end of his life.

As an encore we have the Rachmaninov Vocalise, an exquisite piece which has been arranged for a number of different combinations. This one is by the American cellist Leonard Rose. It receives a delicate and sensitive performance.

The performances here are very satisfying. Ashkenazy is obviously an expert in this music, but Catherine Hewgill is a worthy partner and they work well together. The recording is very present, with the cello slightly forward, but a little adjustment of the controls deals with that. Ashkenazy makes a point of never drowning his cellist or treating his part as if it were a concerto: he has always been a good chamber musician.

The recording was made in 2016 and was, I believe, issued first in Australia before being made internationally available. We have to thank Tom Breen, who was the good angel who put this recording together, together with the team who also run the Eloquence reissue label, which has been such a treasure trove. As Ashkenazy retired from public performance in 2020, this must, sadly, be one of his last recordings. However, I hope we get to hear a good deal more from Catherine Hewgill. Despite being rather short measure, this is a rewarding issue.

Stephen Barber

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