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Hyperion Records

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Young Boy Holding a Skull (detail) (1893) by Magnus Enckell (1870-1925)
Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki / Central Art Archives, Helsinki / Matti Janas
Track(s) taken from CDA67534
Recording details: August 2005
Wigmore Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2006
Total duration: 21 minutes 52 seconds

'It is done with trememdous drama and conviction and a dynamic range that will challenge your ears and speakers' (American Record Guide)

'Schnittke is Shostakovich’s successor in life, art and on this CD. Gerhardt and Osborne play the finale of the older composer’s sonata with a beautiful fluency, highlighting the cello’s running semiquavers and the piano’s pinging scales, which then reappear in the thrilling presto of the younger’s homage-filled work. There could have been more grit in Schnittke’s whirlwind, but the heart-clenching sorrow the duo depicts elsewhere, particularly in the Madrigal for Oleg Kagan, is a compensation. The programme ends lightly with Shostakovich’s Eight Pieces for Cello and Piano, which are short, catchy, childish and fun' (The Times)

'The peformers give vivid and briliant delineations in this well-balanced recording' (The Strad)

'Beautifully recorded and played, this is a disc that enchants simply through the sound it makes. Both Gerhardt and Osborne are noted especially for their poetic insights and whenever the music turns introspective here they cast a magic spell so as to have one hanging on to their every note' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Gerhardt and Osborne are perfectly attuned to the music's nuances and more expressive gestures … simply put, this is the most convincing version of this sonata I've ever heard' (Fanfare, USA)

'I cannot recommend this disc enough. True, it is full-price, but I bet you will play it many more times than a multitude of super-budgets. Superb' (MusicWeb International)

'Dmitri Shostakovich carved the scherzo of his Sonata in D minor for Violoncello and Piano Op 40 out of a dizzy deathsome spin. The staccato in the piano part sounds like the bony rattle of a xylophone. Evil shades haunt the harmonic phrases of the cello in the trio. After just three and a half minutes the whole thing is over: as quick as flash, malicious, this little dance. But for the slow introduction to the following Largo, Shostakovich created a kind of never-ending melody. It describes a generous ascending arch: a cello recitative, supported only by a few pillars of piano chords. Hardly has one noticed that a phrase has ended than it begins all over again. Alban Gerhardt plays this quasi-recitative at only half-volume, as if speaking aside, into the backstage area. The elegy that then arises is sung bloomingly and magnificently from the full breast of the cello, with the passion of a full-vibrato tone … but because this D minor sonata was actually the first major work of chamber music by Shostakovich that he himself let stand; because―in four movements, faithful to sonata form, with regular recapitulations―it also has definite conservative-romantic features and seems to lay aside anything would-be revolutionary; for these reasons there is also a strong temptation to see it as an early witness of the biographical-compositional rearguard action―and to interpret it correspondingly, highlighting its contrasts. The great young Berlin cello virtuoso, Alban Gerhardt, and his piano accompanist, Steven Osborne, are not exaggerating when they do so. Their reading is still differentiated, always closer to the sound-speech of the composer’s text than to extra-musical hints and suggestions. The range of expressive variants is admirably wide, the rhythmic precision and the cleverly balanced dynamics in the way they play together is no less impressive than the range of pianistic and cellistic tone colours. In this presentation, simply everything is in keeping. The duo also arranges the cello sonata of Alfred Schnittke, written for Nathalia Gutman in 1978, in a lucid and clear fashion, with its melancholy twelve-tone sequence at the beginning and the presto drive threatening to become a tempest in the middle. How this duo gives itself to this deadly long-distance run and still insists on beauty of tone is something one just has to have heard. And the small 'encores' on the album? Every one of them a poem in itself' (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany)

'Alban Gerhardt came late to the instrument, but now his mastery of it is both virtuoso and disrespectful, both individual and intellectual. His play is direct and boisterous, but then again astonishingly soft and open to all sorts of fleeting suggestions. He is not a paragon of refinement, but lives music. That can be heard again in his unfeigned enthusiasm for the bitter-sweet cello sonatas of Dmitri Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke, where he is energetically supported at the piano by Steven Osborne. Gerhardt enjoys a flowering phrase but also a breathy staccato, he plays with full tone and also knows how to whisper. But at all times he is master of the cello, oscillating miraculously between discipline and freedom' (Die Welt, Germany)

'Because Gerhardt and Osborne do not blast out Shostakovich’s music statically and obsessively, and do not make him play the same old role of the eternally divided soul with sewing-machine rhythms and tortured pathos, they take him seriously as a sound painter in chamber-music style. This fabulous recording is meaningfully rounded out with Alfred Schnittke’s sonata for cello and piano, the very piece that followed Shostakovich, and two pieces by Schnittke for solo cello, including a wonderful pale-moonlight madrigal with a static melodic pattern, and then, finally, arrangements of some Shostakovich bagatelles. In all: a well-conceived production, expressive playing, generously packed (80 minutes)―a must-buy' (Wirdschaftswoche, Germany)

Sonata for cello and piano No 1
composer
1978

Largo  [3'52]
Presto  [6'01]
Largo  [11'59]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Alfred Schnittke’s First Cello Sonata, together with his Piano Quintet (1976), the Third Violin Concerto (1978) and the Four Hymns (1974–9), marks the start of a new phase in his musical evolution. In the audacious ‘polystylism’ of the First Symphony (1972), Schnittke had forcefully realized his intention to bring ‘light’ and ‘serious’ music together in a kaleidoscopic score that placed jazz and Viennese operetta alongside quotations from Beethoven and Haydn. But although polystylism is commonly assumed to be Schnittke’s invention, he was by no means the only Soviet composer to write in this way. In fact, as early as 1968, Arvo Pärt’s Credo, based on the C major Prelude from Book I of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, had thrown down a symbolic gauntlet to his contemporaries that he himself eventually responded to several years later with his pared-down tintinnabuli style, based on simple triadic harmonies.

For Soviet composers, the 1970s was a decade of ‘intonational crisis’: a period when they began to question their initial embrace of the avant-garde techniques they had learned during the ’60s. And for Schnittke in particular that meant delving deeply into the nature of musical expression. He had already argued that all composers, consciously or not, had ‘hierarchies’, or ‘layers’ in their musical language, citing Mahler, Webern and Ives as examples. In his own First Symphony, Schnittke, following Mahler and Ives, had favoured a starkly juxtaposed polystylism. But only four years later the process of consolidating and refining this chaotic language began. With the Piano Quintet, composed in response to the death of his mother, Schnittke’s musical language underwent a transformation. Paradoxically, the absence of direct quotation went hand in hand with a more symbolic treatment of stylistic allusions, so that instead of quoting from a Strauss waltz, for example, Schnittke would take the most basic feature of a waltz (its repetitive bass accompaniment) and distort it, much as Shostakovich had done before him.

In the First Cello Sonata, Schnittke takes two of the most basic building-blocks of tonal music—the major/ minor third and the perfect cadence—and subjects them to extreme magnification. In the opening Largo, the effect is gently melancholic, circling around C major/minor but evading the resolution of an identifiable chord. The furious scherzo is firmly in the Shostakovich mould: a whirlwind Presto constructed on rigorously contrapuntal lines that recalls the blistering fugato of the Fourth Symphony’s first movement. Here, Schnittke continues to explore the major/minor third oscillations of the Largo, transformed into multiple characters: winding chromatic thirds, the piano’s menacing bass tread and its rumbling bass quavers; the weird, slithering cello fifths and pizzicato chords over the piano’s climactic arm-cluster. The same major/minor third idea also shapes the piano’s gothic-horror-style diminished seventh chords, grotesquely suggestive of a leaden waltz. To use this chord at all by 1978 was as startling as inserting a C major triad into an atonal piece: once again, Schnittke’s treatment of over-familiar musical material is questioning and subversive. Just as he constantly undermines the major/minor triad, the diminished seventh is over-inflated and made both absurd and sinister. Underpinning it all is a carefully wrought canonic structure based on the cello’s opening material and subjected to ingenious processes of repetition and augmentation.

If one feature of the Sonata is Schnittke’s obsession with small units of musical expression, then another is his striving for a kind of hyper-expressivity, even hyperbole. This too draws deeply upon Shostakovich’s sound-world; the opening cello music of the finale has the same agonized intensity as Shostakovich’s most searing string recitatives, with its fixated semitonal rocking back and forth and painfully over-stretched melodic leaps. Where the earlier Piano Quintet had ended in a radiantly serene D flat major, this Largo rejects the possibility of any such clear resolution. Instead, Schnittke uses memory, not harmony, to create closure: he returns to the main motif of the first movement (the bell-like falling piano chords), to its superimposed major/minor chords and to the Presto’s ascending cello figure, transformed from an assertive fortissimo to pianissimo. Over the plainest of accompaniments—simple sustained piano chords—the cello muses on its opening rocking figure and on the piano’s falling bell-chord motif. Ambiguity persists to the very last bars: below the piano’s whispered recollection of the Presto, the cello’s sustained C is tinged with C sharp and an F sharp harmonic. It is Schnittke’s simultaneous avoidance of resolution and constant allusion to it that create an eerie sense of wandering through once-beautiful, now desolate, ruins. In fact, the melancholic nature of this music is almost its raison d’être; without the unlocking of Schnittke’s melancholic side in the Quintet, it could be argued that the mature mastery of his works from the late 1970s could not otherwise have been achieved.

from notes by Pauline Fairclough © 2006

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