Opus 40: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1934)

Sonata for Cello and Piano, op. 40 (1934)
CD:  “Sonatas for Cello and Piano”, Pieter Wispelwey (cello), Dejan Lazic (piano)  (Channel Classics CCS 20098)

I’m very glad to have reached the cello sonata.  Shostakovich’s music for stage and screen has its pleasures but my project leaves me little control over my focused listening, and these mid-November days right after the fallback to standard time from daylight savings have me in the mood for contemplative, chamber-sized music.  I listened through the sonata three times through between Monday and Tuesday (this post goes up late due to some technical difficulties), hearing it for the first time ever in blustery cool weather and then steady rain — too often while driving, but that’s what my schedule this week affords — and it’s both an engaging work of art and an apt companion to the season.

Shostakovich turned into a formidable composer of chamber music but to this point in his career he’d written little of it, at least in part because the Soviet Union’s cultural arbiters hadn’t yet settled the question of whether such small-scale music was too individualistic for the needs of the state and its mass audiences.  His Aphorisms and 24 Preludes, vehicles for his career as a pianist, seem to contain his most personal music so far.  (The first symphony and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk speak with a great deal of emotion and personality, too, but more dramatically so.)  The cello sonata, though it’s more romantically lyrical than the equilibrium his style would hold through the 1940s and ’50s, is the first of his works that I recognize as middle-period rather than early Shostakovich, in its directness of expression and in its symphonic expansiveness despite its chamber size.

A long Allegro non troppo opens the sonata with grace, although it casts shadows too:  The elegant opening theme, in a move that would become typical in the composer’s string quartets and elsewhere, quickly becomes subject to darker-hued dramatics.  A more expansive, upward-reaching second theme, lovelier than is typical for Shostakovich’s melodies, quiets the mood.  The piano introduces it under unabashedly sentimental sighs from the cello, before the instruments trade it off:

That second theme recurs wistfully in between developmental episodes.  The movement ends on a dark note, as the cello slowly restates the opening theme; Wispelwey gives the passage a spectral presence.

The opening of the second movement also sounds remarkable on this disc, a cold, droning whirlwind of a round dance:

The movement lightens in places but despite its motion it frequently sounds hollow, drained of all mirth.  The eight-minute Largo that follows forms the emotional core of the piece.  It is dark, nocturnal music, characterized by searching melodic lines and pulsing rhythms in the piano.  It reaches back to the unsettling Cradle Song that ends Aphorisms and to the murky atmosphere of the Japanese songs, but it also looks forward to the more harrowing Nocturne of the first violin concerto:  A few passages give off a loamy warmth but there is little solace to be found in this musical night.

The fast-moving fourth movement bears the closest resemblance to the puckish but edgy items within the 24 Preludes, although it recalls the first piano concerto too; the former cinema pianist pops out of its theatrical outbursts.  This last movement lacks the concerto’s sunny mood, though, running back and forth between nervous glee and something more like existential panic, especially in some running figures near the end that recall the frenzy of the second movement.

Wispelwey and Lazic have a very fine, full sound on this album.  In particular, the disc picks up a rich range of sounds from the cello body (perhaps enhanced just a little by my noise-reducing headphones and factory-standard Honda Civic speakers).  The two cut appropriately punchy, hard-edged entrances for the sonata’s more theatrical sections, honing the music’s angst; in its less explosive stretches they draw out Shostakovich’s broad, thoroughly mature range from lyrical warmth to psychological darkness.  The album also includes excellent accounts of Prokofiev’s and Britten’s cello sonatas, which I listened through a few weeks ago in sunnier weather.

In spite of its depths, Shostakovich’s sonata has a simplicity of a piece with The Limpid Stream and most of his other works since Lady Macbeth.  That simplicity of expression, increasingly demanded of him (although it seems to grow more organically as well as he moves past a youthful bomb-throwing phase), is stronger and more organic here, as the composer finds a direct musical channel for his emotional ambiguities instead of trying to spike a watery balletic punch.  Although plenty was happening in the USSR in 1934 to fuel dark thoughts in Shostakovich and his fellow Soviet citizens, I don’t hear it as straight autobiography or as a testament to that historical moment — he wrote too much light music alongside it for that, however much you read those as mere sops to the state.  Rather, it seems like a space where he could give voice to his anxieties without, due to its abstractness and more conventional musical development, drawing too much official ire, at least for a time.  It’s music very much worth hearing, and a fine accompaniment to this time of year.

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2 Responses to “Opus 40: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1934)”

  1. Pete Grady Says:

    Hey Nate. Where you been all your life? “Europe Central,” William T. Vollmann. He devotes a whole chapter to Opus 40. Here’s Bill at his finest: pg. 86, “Europe Central”: “Her electric clitoris and the phrase electric clitoris were the first two aspects of her to be translated musically—a claim which the translater would have rejected, since right up to util his Seventh Symphony he proudly disdained program music; but sometimes the critic’s exegesis is wiser than the composers, for the same reasons that in the recordings of Opus 40, Emanuel Ax plays the piano part better than Shostakovich; no one who has read the entire case file can deny that Elena Konstantinovskaya’s clitoris was electric and that its sweet vibrations in the cello melody which opens the first movement. In his preface to Europe Central, which was a National Book Award Winner, Bill quotes Shosti: “The majority of my symphonies are tombstones.” Except for the happy Ninth. If you haven’t read it, go out and but the book. A masterpiece.

    • Nate Says:

      Thanks for your thoughts — it’s definitely worth noting that the cello sonata figures heavily in Vollmann’s fictionalized account of Shostakovich’s affair with Konstantinovskaya. Oddly enough, I’m hoping to drop in on a recital of the sonata on the Portland State campus this afternoon, so it’s good to start thinking about it again in advance.

      I did start reading Europe Central a few years ago but I didn’t make it much further than the “electric clitoris” chapter — I just found Vollmann’s prose too self-indulgently bulky. To a lesser extent his emphasis on notable cultural figures and the grand historical sweep of the war years didn’t appeal to me; I’ve tended to like authors who deal more with the ground-level absurdities of war, a la Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller. But I’m not aware of any other, major fictional treatment of Shostakovich, so if for no other reason than that I sometimes think of giving Vollmann’s book another try.

      The “tombstones” quote, it should be disclaimed, comes from Solomon Volkov’s purported Shostakovich memoir, Testimony, and so can’t be deemed authentic according to any reasonable definition of the word. (Alex Ross summarized an argument for that a few years ago that I won’t try to top.)

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