Laura van der Heijden (cello), Petr Limonov (piano)
Wigmore Hall, 2nd April 2018
- Britten – Cello Sonata in C major, Op 65
- Shostakovich – Cello Sonata in D minor Op 40
21st December 1960. Britten and Shostakovich are sharing a box at the Festival Hall. That’s right the two greatest composers of the twentieth century, well maybe the two greatest after a chap called Stravinsky, are both in a box listening to Mstislav Rostropovich playing Dmitri’s First Cello Concerto. I’d like to have been there. Anyway Mstislav persuades Britten to compose a sonata just for him a year later which, at this concert, is set alongside Shostakovich’s own contribution to the form, written in 1934, as he broke away from his early, modernist days, and, unlike his Cello Concertos, not dedicated to Mr Rostropovich.
The admiration and regard that BB and DSCH had for each other is well known but their musical connections, beyond the broad commitment to tonality, is not always clear. Despite the time between these two works I was struck by how this comparison of the two sonatas pointed up their similarities.
Britten begins with a Dialogo, an exchange of single notes and short phrases between the two instruments, which eventually reveals two themes, a choppy, pleading line for cello and a soothing rise and fall for piano, developed and recapitulated. Next a jerky scherzo, with cello entirely pizzicato, which keeps running off over the horizon. It could be Bartok, or course, but it could have just as easily come from a mid period DSCH quartet. The central Elegia similarly could have seeped out of one of those interminable Largos in any DSCH symphony. Simple but hugely effective. As for the Marcia which follows, well you might be forgiven for thinking this is a parody of a DSCH parody, as the cello troops haphazardly wobble off in entirely the wrong direction thanks to the incompetent piano general, ending up in no man’s land. Then the final Moto Perpetuo, a classic Britten device, but again redolent of DSCH’s chamber scherzos, if a bit more inventive, with a big tutti flourish at the end.
And guess what. The Shostakovich sonata’s final movement incorporates a very similar moto perpetuo. Let’s not get ahead of ourself though. DSCH begins with a restrained opening, with a tiny bit of irritation, that parlays into about the most lyrical second theme you could imagine from this prickliest of composers. Hard to believe this was written at a time when wife Nina had left him for a bit after he confessed to an affair. (I have often wondered what scientist Nina saw in this acidic, direct, conflicted, alcoholic, man-child obsessive. Beyond his musical genius of course. Still the SO is still with the Tourist, without even the defence of talent, so no accounting for taste).
Anyway there is no evidence of DSCH’s rebellious youth or the cacaphonies that got him deep in the shit with Joe Stalin a couple of years later. (Though remember it took a couple of years before the Politburo woke up to the fact that Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District was seditious formalism. That’s the problem with authoritarian artistic taste. It’s a bit backward).
Halfway in to this monster first movement, just as we might be tiring of DSCH’s impression of Brahms, he hits us with something more rhythmic and darker with cello pizzicato and some plodding from piano, which keeps recurring.
In the second movement we are back to familiar territory with a scherzo in the form of a brisk, marchy waltz. In the middle some fancy cello glissando and legato melody from piano, before the two reverse. Vintage DSCH. The slow movement is also recognisably DSCH though with a recurring squeaky cello motif like someone pretending to cry. It’s odd hearing DSCH do a kind of faux-Romantic sadness in contrast to those immense journeys of genuine human suffering elsewhere in his work.
Back to D minor in the last movement, where a rondo is alternated with contrasting episodes including the aforementioned moto perpetuo for piano. It’s not heroic, but nor is it sarcastic in tone, and for me is one of DSCH’s finest chamber music moments. It’s inventiveness echoes ….. one Benjamin Britten.
So, with the exception maybe of parts of the first movement in the Shostakovich sonata, two very fine pieces of music. I have recordings of the BB by, natch, Mr Rostropovich and BB himself, and the Shostakovich, a cheapo Naxos by Dmitry Yablonsky and Ekaterina Saranceva. There are both excellent and I fear, quite a bit more involving than the performances of Laura van der Heijden and Petr Limonov. These were considered and accurate but I think I may have been spoilt by the recordings. Anyway, given these are not always at the top of the recital agenda, I highly recommend seeking them out when they do appear, especially when together.