Other composers too have made use of the great tonal range and broad spectrum of sound of which the cello is capable. During last year’s Bergen International Festival we heard Beethoven’s complete sonatas and variations for cello and piano, an event that resulted in the Critics’ Prize. The other great Bs – Bach and Brahms – have also contributed to cello repertoire with chamber music and solo works as immortal as the instrument itself. The Russian composers however add a further dimension to the music, which the cello is particularly well suited to expressing.
A common feature of the two piano trios (Tchaikovsky’s opus 50 and Shostakovich’s opus 67) is that they followed close upon the loss of dear friends.
When Shostakovich became aware of the holocaust which had taken place under Nazi German leadership from the outset of the war, he started working on a trio based on the modes and melodies of Jewish folk music as he knew it. In the winter of 1943–44 he showed his sketches to his musicologist friend Ivan Sollertinsky, who died only a few months later in February 1944. The trio became a personal expression of Shostakovich’s grief at the loss of a good friend, while remaining a gruesome monument to the atrocities of war and a tribute to the tribulations of the Jewish people.
Shostakovich chose a classical, four-movement structure for his trio. The construction of Tchaikovsky’s opus 50 trio is far more ‘modern’, with two main sections: a traditional first movement followed by a movement in variation form which ends in a long coda. Subtitled In memory of a great artist, the trio pays tribute to Nikolai Rubinstein, who died of tuberculosis in Paris in 1881. He founded the Moscow conservatoire in 1866, and worked with Tchaikovsky there. He was also a great champion of Tchaikovsky’s music.
The trio builds on themes rooted in Russian and Ukrainian folk music. Many of the songs and tunes Tchaikovsky had learned from his nannies may be recognised in the themes of his works, beautifully ornamented and developed by the composer. In the coda the elegiac opening theme returns, and the great work ends in an almost interminable funeral march.
Sergei Rachmaninoff carried on the tradition of Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries into the twentieth century. He is most commonly associated with his Piano Concertos, the first of which was strongly influenced by Grieg. His second and third Piano Concertos remain extremely popular thanks to their beauty and masterful virtuosity. The Cello Sonata from 1901 is coloured by the fact that the composer was himself a great pianist. As in Beethoven’s early sonatas (Nos 1 and 2 from 1796), the piano has a dominant role. In the third movement, Andante, Rachmaninoff’s genius is apparent in the characteristic mood also found in the second Piano Concerto.
Like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff was oriented towards the west, where he toured and lived until his death in the USA in 1943. Dmitri Shostakovich on the other hand lived in his native country throughout his lifetime. This involved living through the same suffering and deprivation as his fellow countrymen – bloody revolution, unstable and dangerous years under Stalin, a world war and the aversion of the Soviet state to expression of individuality and criticism of the system. His music is coloured by his love of genuine Russian culture, his sympathy for the intention of the revolution and the opportunities that existed, despite setbacks, for him to work with his fellow countrymen and women. Despair, sarcasm and cutting irony blend with ethereal beauty and the utmost gravity.
On his way to the first performance of the Cello Sonata in 1934, Shostakovich read in the newspaper Pravda Stalin’s description of his music: bourgeois! This was the beginning of a difficult time for Shostakovich. Many of his works were withdrawn, and he constantly feared that Stalin’s criticism would have even more dire consequences.
The Cello Sonata however was left untouched; remarkably so, since it is constructed in much the same way as his ‘forbidden’ works, and it contains exactly the same typical elements of cynicism, despair and caustic irony.
Text: Erling Dahl jr
English version: Roger Martin