Cello Sonata (Shostakovich)
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The Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40, was one of Dmitri Shostakovich's early works, composed in 1934 just prior to the censure by Soviet authorities of his music, notably the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was deemed too bourgeois and decadent for the Soviet people. It was also a period of emotional turmoil in his life, as he had fallen in love with a young student at a Leningrad festival featuring his Lady Macbeth. Their affair resulted in a brief divorce from his wife Nina, and it was in August, during their period of separation, that he wrote the cello sonata, completing it within a few weeks and giving its premiere in Moscow on 25 December with his close friend, the cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who was also the piece's dedicatee. By the next autumn Shostakovich and Nina had remarried, she being pregnant with their daughter, who was born in 1936.
I – Allegro non troppo
The sonata form first movement contrasts a broad first theme in the cello, accompanied by flowing piano arpeggios, developed by the piano towards an intense climax. As tension abates, a ray of light appears with the tender second theme, with unusual tonal shifts, announced by the piano and imitated by the cello. In the development a spiky rhythmic motif penetrates through the flowing textures of the first theme. The recapitulation appears with the second theme rather than the first. Shostakovich introduces an unusual pianissimo texture for the first theme where all moves in slow motion, with staccato chords in the piano and sustained notes in the cello.
II – Allegro
The second movement has a perpetual motion energy, its thrusting repeated ostinato pattern relentlessly shared while a pointed first theme – almost incongruous – is presented by the piano in widely spaced octaves, a sonority often used by Shostakovich. The cello’s more light-hearted theme is later imitated, Pierrot-like up in the piano’s brittle high register. Piquant wit abounds in familiar classical gestures set askew, sudden lurches into unrelated keys, until the initial driving ostinato resumes, leading to a sudden conclusion.
III – Largo
The bleak expanses of Russia are evoked in the soulful slow movement, the piano providing a dark backdrop for the cello’s rhapsodic, vocal theme. It is one of the earliest examples of a mood that was to feature in many of Shostakovich’s most powerful works, reflective introspection through icy dissonances that touch yet do not settle on warmer consonances, until the music eventually fades into the impressionistic twilight.
IV – Allegro
Caustic with colors is the brief yet ebullient finale, a rondo in which the main playful theme appears five times, imitated by both instruments, interspersed by episodes full of sparking scales. In the second of these, the piano is let loose in a cadenza of helter-skelter zest, ebulliently veering into unexpected tonal highways. The theme returns, to round the movement off in abrupt yet decisive brilliance.