Sonata in D Minor for Cello and Piano
Born August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died March 25, 1918, Paris
Near the end of his life Debussy planned a cycle of six sonatas for various combinations of instruments. He completed only the first three: for cello and piano (1915), flute, viola, and harp (1915), and violin and piano (1917). Projected–but never written–were sonatas for oboe, horn, and harpsichord; for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon, and piano; and a final sonata that would have included all the instruments from the five earlier sonatas.
This was not a happy period in the composer’s life. He was suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill him, and World War I was raging across Europe–Paris was actually being shelled on the day the composer died there. The three sonatas that Debussy completed have never achieved the popularity of his earlier works. Audiences have found them abstract in form, severe in expression, and Debussy himself deprecated them with the self-irony that marked his painful final years. Of the Violin Sonata he said: “This sonata will be interesting from a documentary viewpoint and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”
But this music has a power all its own, and listeners who put aside their preconceptions about what Debussy should sound like (and about what a sonata should be) will find the music moving and–in its austere way–painfully beautiful. One of the most impressive things about the Cello Sonata is its concentration: it lasts less than twelve minutes. Further intensifying this music’s severity is Debussy’s refusal to develop–or even to use–themes in a traditional sense: this is music not of fully-developed themes but of thematic fragments appearing in various forms and shapes. The opening movement, Prologue–Lent, is only 51 measures long, but Debussy alters the tempo every few measures: the score is saturated with tempo changes and performance instructions. The piano’s opening three-measure phrase recurs throughout, contrasting with the cello’s agitato passages in the center section. At the end, the cello winds gradually into its highest register and concludes hauntingly on the interval of a perfect fifth, played in harmonics.
The second and third movements are performed without pause. The second is marked Sérénade, but this is unlike any serenade one has heard before: there is nothing lyric about this song. The cello snaps out grumbling pizzicatos (Debussy considered calling this movement Pierrot Angry at the Moon), and when the cello is finally given a bowed passage, it is marked ironique. The finale–Animé–opens with abrupt pizzicatos. As in the first movement, there are frequent changes of tempo, a continuing refusal to announce or develop themes in traditional senses, sudden changes of mood (the performer is instructed to play the brief lyric section at the movement’s center con morbidezza, which means “gently”), explosive pizzicatos. Such a description makes the sonata sound fierce, abstract, even mocking. But beneath the surface austerity of this sonata lies music of haunting emotional power.
Fantasy in C Major, D.934
Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna
Schubert wrote the Fantasy for Violin and Piano in December 1827, only eleven months before his death at age 31. The music was first performed in public on January 20, 1828, by violinist Joseph Slavik and pianist Karl von Bocklet, one of Schubert’s close friends. That première was a failure. The audience is reported to have begun to drift out during the performance, reviewers professed mystification, and the Fantasy was not published until 1850, twenty-two years after Schubert’s death.
Hearing this lovely music today, it is hard to imagine how anyone could have had trouble with it, for the only thing unusual about the Fantasy is its structure. About twenty minutes long, it falls into four clear sections that are played without pause. Though it seems to have some of the shape of a sonata, the movements do not develop in the expected sonata form–that may have been what confused the first audience–and Schubert was quite correct to call this piece a “fantasy,” with that term’s implication of freedom from formal restraint.
The Fantasy is heard at this concert in an arrangement for cello and piano. Melodic and appealing as the Fantasy may be to hear, it is nevertheless extremely difficult to perform, and it demands players of the greatest skill. The first section, marked Andante molto, opens with shimmering ripples of sound from the piano, and the lovely cello line enters almost unnoticed. Soon, though, it rises to soar high above the accompaniment before brief cadenza-like passages for cello and then piano lead abruptly to the Allegretto. Here the cello has the dance-like opening idea, but the piano immediately picks this up, and quickly the instruments are imitating and answering each other. The string writing in this section, full of wide skips and string-crossings, is particularly difficult. The third section, marked Andantino, is a set of variations. The piano alone plays the melody, which comes from Schubert’s song Sei mir gegrüsst (“Greetings to Thee”), written in 1821. Some of Schubert’s best-known compositions–the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet and the “Trout” Quintet–also build a movement out of variations on one of the composer’s own songs, and in the Fantasy Schubert offers four variations on Sei mir gegrüsst. These variations grow extremely complex, and once again the music makes great demands on its performers. At the conclusion of the variations, the shimmering music from the beginning returns briefly before the vigorous final section, marked Allegro vivace. Schubert brings the Fantasy to a close with a Presto coda, both instruments straining forward before the cello suddenly flashes upward to strike the concluding final note.
Selections from 24 Preludes
(after Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes, Opus 34)
Born October 21, 1974, Chelyabinsk, Russia
The 24 Preludes have appealed to many different instrumentalists, and Dmitri Tsiganov–a friend of Shostakovich and first violinist of the Beethoven Quartet–arranged a number of them for violin and piano (Jascha Heifetz liked several of these so much that he used them as encore pieces). This program offers a selection of the Preludes in imaginative re-arrangements for cello and piano prepared by composer and pianist Lera Auerbach.
Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died August 9, 1975, Moscow
In the fall of 1932, Shostakovich completed his massive opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. That opera would soon be performed around the world and help make hisreputation, and it would shortly thereafter get him into an extraordinary amount of trouble. The prudish Stalin went to see it, a Pravda attack followed within days, and Shostakovich’s career was nearly iced in the aftermath. All this was still several years in the future when the composer marked the completion of the opera by renewing his interest in the piano. Shostakovich had been a virtuoso pianist as a very young man (he received an “Honorable Mention” at the 1927 International Chopin Contest in Warsaw), but he had not written anything for the instrument for five years. Now he set to work on an ambitious project: he would compose twenty-four piano preludes in all the major and minor keys, just as Bach had done in The Well-Tempered Clavier. Beginning on December 30, 1932, he composed those preludes, each of them completed in the span of one day, and finished the project two months later on March 2. Shostakovich himself was pianist at the première on May 24, 1933, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, though he had performed a number of the preludes informally for friends before that. Writing the Preludes appears to have sharpened his interest in the piano–he went on to compose his Piano Concerto No. 1 later that year.
The Preludes combine the two sides of Shostakovich so evident in the early years of his career: they fuse a classical discipline with the sardonic, satiric, sarcastic tone of much of his early music, a tone that led the piano pedagogue Ernest Hutcheson to characterize Shostakovich as a “Lord of Misrule, immensely talented and entirely irresponsible.” This is mercurial music. Some of the Preludes are aphoristic, lasting barely a minute, while others stretch out to more extended expression. They can be full of almost schizophrenic swings of mood and tempo: light and dark, quick and slow, sparkling and brooding–in fact, those quick and jarring changes may be the most consistent aspect of this music.
Sonata in G Minor for Piano and Cello, Opus 19
Born April 1, 1873, Semyonova
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California
Rachmaninoff wrote very little chamber music: two piano trios, various fragments for string quartet, and some short pieces for strings and keyboard. But for one chamber ensemble he felt a continuing affection–the combination of cello and piano. Among his earliest works were the Romance in F Minor for cello and piano and Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, Opus 2, and to that combination he returned in his final chamber work, the Sonata for Piano and Cello in G Minor.
Rachmaninoff wrote his this sonata in the summer of 1901, when he was 28. Several years earlier, harsh critical attacks had so damaged his self-confidence that he stopped composing altogether. Under the care of the psychologist Dr. Nikolay Dahl, who treated him with hypnosis, Rachmaninoff regained his confidence and composed his Second Piano Concerto, which had a triumphant première. It was in the afterglow of this success that Rachmaninoff wrote the Cello Sonata, and perhaps it should come as no surprise that the sonata shows some of the grand, extroverted manner of the piano concerto. Rachmaninoff and Anatoly Brandoukoff gave the première in Moscow on December 2 of that year. The manuscript itself is dated December 12, 1901–apparently Rachmaninoff went back and made some revisions after the first performance.
The Cello Sonata has been criticized for favoring the piano at the expense of the cello. Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest piano virtuosos of all time, and some critics have felt that he naturally wrote best for the instrument he knew best. While the piano does have an unusually prominent role in this sonata, this was by design rather than by default. After hearing a radio performance of the sonata in 1942, Rachmaninoff phoned the cellist to offer congratulations on her playing but also to complain about the balance of the broadcast: the engineers had set the piano well in the background and Rachmaninoff wanted to specify that this was a Sonata for Piano and Cello and not simply a Cello Sonata.
The first movement opens with a Lento introduction that contains suspended fragments of what will become the sonata’s opening theme. When this theme arrives at the Allegro moderato it gives the lie to all who claim that Rachmaninoff wrote badly for the cello–if ever there was a cello theme, this songful surge of melody is it. The second subject (which critics universally label “Schumannesque”) is for piano alone, and the development is shared equally by the two instruments, though just before the coda the piano is given a virtuosic outburst that almost becomes a small cadenza. The coda to this sonata-form movement is dramatic and declarative.
Marked Allegro scherzando, the brilliant second movement has nothing of the joke about it. Gone are the broad, romantic gestures of the first movement, and in their place comes a muttering, trembling rush of triplets in somber C minor. The movement is in ABA form, which Rachmaninoff varies by inserting a lyric episode into the fast outer sections. The trio section itself is built on a gorgeous lyric theme for the cello, another example of Rachmaninoff’s beautiful writing for the instrument. The ghostly opening section returns to drive the movement to its sudden ending.
The brief Andante, by far the shortest of the movements, opens over an accompaniment of murmuring sixteenth-notes in the piano. First piano and then cello pick up and develop the main theme, a melody so lyric that it should remind listeners of a little-known side of Rachmaninoff: he wrote nearly seventy songs. The Allegro mosso finale contrasts its first theme, built on driving triplets, with a singing second episode. The blazing coda leads to a cadence very much in the manner of the just-completed Second Piano Concerto.
Program notes by Eric Bromberger