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At the outset it almost seems as if Shostakovich is content to write a second Rachmaninov sonata. The opening tune has a sweep and grandeur hardly redolent of a young man in the 1930s [listen -- track 5, 0:00-1:00]. The sonata was written just before the Soviet authorities hurled brickbats of criticism at Shostakovich in outrage at his Lady Macbeth opera. An opera is easier to condemn than a sonata, but the wayward course of this work might have alerted those charged with ensuring Russian musical rectitude to trouble ahead. Shostakovich stakes his claim to the melodic richness of his heritage and promptly cocks a snook at it, making such grotesque and eerie gestures with his material that the first movement ends in total collapse. The strong rhythms of the Scherzo become a foil to the bleak expanses that the slow movement scans, while the finale tries to persuade us it was probably foolish to take the sonata seriously at all [listen -- track 8, 0:00-1:05].

In the concert hall Rachmaninov's plethora of notes presents the cello with almost insoluble problems. It is in any case a medium where balance is notoriously difficult, but a recording studio can smooth much. Even so, Gwyneth George, eloquent enough in all conscience and riding the technical difficulties with enviable ease, now and again threatens to disappear. It is not that Alberto Portugheis is insensitive or unaware of the snags. The fault, if such it be, is entirely the composer's. Rachmaninov's tunes come decked in clouds of pianistic glory, and it would be only the meanest of puritans who would suggest subtracting a note or inhibiting Portugheis's proper exuberance. That said, Gwyneth George's warm cantilena sounds sometimes lonely, as if Rachmaninov had occasionally almost forgotten to add a cello part. No such difficulties beset the Shostakovich, where the piano is schooled to a pervasive economy, and the cello can make its points, expansive or wry, with no sense of strain. Successful cello sonatas are rare, but here are two that in their different ways emerge triumphant.

Copyright © 10 April 2002 Robert Anderson, London, UK







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