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Cello Sonata No 2 in G major, Op 39
1857; revised some years later

'Rubinstein: Cello Sonatas' (CDA67660)
Rubinstein: Cello Sonatas
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Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Allegretto
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Moderato

Cello Sonata No 2 in G major, Op 39
The Cello Sonata No 2 in G major, Op 39, was composed in 1857, though Rubinstein revised it some years later. This is a larger, more ambitious conception than the D major sonata, with a true scherzo and slow movement as well as sonata-form first movement and finale. In fact, though the sonata-form outlines of the first movement are clear, the movement has fantasia-like aspects, developing episodes that concentrate on one motif or another, and with cadenza-like effusions for the two instruments at different times. The cello’s opening theme is generously long-spanned, almost Brahmsian, but it is the dotted rhythms of the piano—which soon inflect the cello theme as it unfolds—that provide much of the movement’s motivic power. An Animato transition theme, with restless triplet figuration in the piano, leads to a broad espressivo second subject in D. A searching development section brings the opening theme (now initially in the piano), the dotted-rhythm motifs (often plaintively in the cello, more vigorously in the piano), and the flurries of triplet figuration into close collaboration. The cello takes up the triplets in a fretful episode that leads into a full recapitulation, the second subject reappearing orthodoxly in the tonic G, but this is then extended in a further developmental passage that reintroduces the cello’s ghostly triplet episode. The cello eventually lands on a low trilled D, over which the piano begins the coda with a reminiscence of the second subject; it then enunciates massive fortissimo chords, low in its register, over which the cello gives a last statement of the dotted-rhythm motif, leading to a decisive close.

The Allegretto scherzo turns the tonality to G minor and starts as a kind of stealthy minuet, establishing a repeated-note figure as part of a rather capricious melodic line. The Animato second strain then develops the idea more forcefully in quasi-canon between the two instruments (and the pianist’s two hands). A more sentimental con espressione variant and a flurry of piano chromatics bring an entire repeat of what has so far transpired. The flowingly melodious trio section is almost entirely expounded by the piano with only a few cello comments. There is a full da capo of the scherzo, and then a coda that starts nostalgically, obsesses about the rhythmic figure, then disappears in a swift pianissimo staccato sign-off.

The Andante slow movement, in E flat, begins with a long-breathed, intensely romantic largamente tune which must rank among Rubinstein’s finest melodic inspirations. It is heard against a pulsed chordal accompaniment that starts out as groups of repeated notes separated by empty bars in which the cello is unsupported, its melody growing in warmth and cogency. A more easily flowing, almost neo-Bachian two-part invention then starts up in the piano, the cello soon joining as a lyrical third voice. (It should be remembered that Rubinstein was among the first leading virtuosos who regularly included Bach’s keyboard works in his recitals.) The semiquaver motion of this passage then substitutes for the pulsed chords in a reprise of the first theme, which grows in ardour to a grandiose restatement, the piano having the theme in full harmony as the cello responds in alternate bars, until the two instruments drive together to a climax. When the emotion subsides the semiquaver figuration, no longer part of a polyphonic scheme, bears the cello line back to a tranced reprise of the opening theme with the original pulsing chords. A reminiscence of the ‘two-part invention’ leads to a cadential close, the piano descending to its low register, the cello ascending to its highest.

Like the finale of the first sonata, the last movement of No 2 is marked Moderato, but with the qualification con fuoco ed appassionato, and it is probably the most virtuosic display piece, as well as the most inventive and imaginative conception, in either work. Capricious piano figuration and cello pizzicati start it off, soon settling into a driving and forceful first subject with quick-march rhythms in the piano. A smoother transition theme, con espressione, links to a second subject proper, notable for the wide leaps and intervals of the cello line—an idea which, as often in the material of this movement, blends passion with wit. A smoothly ascending tune initiates a codetta, and then this whole exposition is repeated. It makes way for a development section that starts with the ascending codetta theme and somewhat slows the pace through its concentration on chorale-like chordal writing in the piano. There follows an episode that Rubinstein marks dramatico, the cello in truculent, almost aggrieved recitative against piano tremolandi. A full recapitulation continues to find ways of elaborating and varying the material, even incorporating the cello’s dramatico protest, which then initiates a grand, full-hearted coda. The capricious figurations of the opening return just in time to preface the grandiose final bars.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2009

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Details for CDA67660 track 5
Recording date
16 January 2008
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Rubinstein: Cello Sonatas (CDA67660)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: April 2009
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