The mystic aspect to Rachmaninov’s art can be felt strongly throughout his Cello Sonata, his most famous piece of chamber music. While there are no obvious quotations from any Orthodox hymns, the style of many of the themes, with their close intervals, their incense-filled colours, the passionate, almost obsessive repetition of single notes (particularly in the main theme of the slow movement), and the frequent bell-like sonorities, owe a huge debt to the music of the Russian Church that was such an important influence on the composer’s life. Written in 1901, the year after the perennially beloved Second Piano Concerto, the Cello Sonata reflects, perhaps, the state of Rachmaninov’s heart and mind. Having suffered a nervous breakdown after the catastrophic failure of his First Symphony in 1897, Rachmaninov had fought his way back to mental and creative health. Surely it is not fanciful to hear an echo of this in the struggles of the first movement, with its conflict between semitones and whole tones; in the dark night of the Scherzo; and then in the blazing joy of the Finale? No bearded Russian priest with his Easter cry ‘Christ is Risen’ can ever have sounded more triumphant than the cello does as it announces the glorious second theme of this movement. The whole sonata, imbued as it is with the classical discipline that is so vital a feature of all Rachmaninov’s music, encompasses a vast range of romantic emotion—a journey of the soul.
(Incidentally, a footnote: any attentive listener following this performance with a score may be surprised, if not shocked, to hear us playing fortissimo at one point in the coda of the last movement, when the printed edition is clearly marked pianissimo. The justification—apart from the musical sense it so clearly makes, at least to us—comes from a piece of oral history: my grandfather, Julius Isserlis, used to play this sonata in Russia with the work’s dedicatee, the cellist Anatoly Brandukov. Brandukov, when he wasn’t busy flirting outrageously with my grandmother, apparently told my grandfather that Rachmaninov had decided, presumably after publication, that he preferred the fortissimo at this point. Since there has only been one edition of the sonata, this preference has never been documented. I heard about it only because my grandmother, also a pianist, learnt the sonata when she was around eighty, in order to play it with me when I was a little boy; she passed on this nugget of information, and I have to say that I find it entirely convincing.)
from notes by Steven Isserlis © 2003