A tribute to the chamber music of Russian composers, our second concert for this year's festival takes you to a unique musical journey from the cymbals of war in Prokofiev's 6th piano sonata, to the mystery of the sacred in Rachmaninoff's cello sonata and finally to an ebullient, almost joyous quintet by Shostakovich.
Rachmaninoff's cello sonata written in 1901 functions in this program as an introvert, contemplative abyss between two very extrovert works premiered in 1940 when the war was raging and all the world was swirling around it.
Sergei Prokofiev - Prokofiev Piano Sonata 6
Sergei Rachmaninoff - Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata
Dmitri Shostakovich - Shostakovich Piano Quintet
Piano Sonata 6
C MINOR OP. 66
The first of the famous three War Sonatas, which was premiered by Prokofiev himself in a Moscow radio broadcast on 8 April 1940. Prokofiev exposes us to the overwhelming power of war through a structural and tonal analogy. According to Sviatoslav Richter who was introduced to the piece in a private performance, “The remarkable clarity of style and structural perfection of the music amazed me. I had not heard anything like it before. The composer, with barbaric audacity, breaks with the ideals of the Romantics and includes the shattering pulse of the 20th Century in his music.”
From the start of the first movement we are immediately introduced to a world at war. A vigorous march of dissonant harmonies and an aggressive chord progression is forcing the audience in an almost defensive state. The despair of war is evident in everything, and as the music gradually gains more volume and texture it starts to resemble the sound of bombs dropping around us. This tension is kept throughout all the movements pulsating between anger and cautiousness, fear and death. Even when the theme is reintroduced in the final movement in a more complex and controlled manner we are yet to find closure. A machine gun is exchanging fire before us and the recurring barbaric theme threatens to swallow everything. Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata is not a subtle piece of music - but its harsh nature is appropriate and rewarding for both the pianist and the audience.
I. Allegro moderato
III. Tempo di valzer lentissimo
G MINOR OP. 19
In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin, no less, tells a revealing story: ‘Rachmaninoff was a strange-looking man, with something aesthetic and cloistral about him … Someone brought the topic around to religion and I confessed that I was not a believer. Rachmaninoff quickly interposed: “But how can you have art without religion?” I was stumped for a moment. “I don’t think we are talking about the same thing”, I said. “My concept of religion is a belief about dogma—and art is a feeling more than a belief.” “So is religion”, he answered. After that I shut up.”’
This mystic aspect to Rachmaninoff’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, Rachmaninoff had fought his way back to mental and creative health. Rachmaninov dedicated the sonata to the eminent Russian cellist Anatoliy Brandukov, also his best man, who gave the first performance in Moscow with the composer himself playing the terrifyingly difficult piano part.
I. Lento – Allegro moderato
II. Allegro scherzando
IV. Allegro mosso
G MINOR OP. 57
The Piano Quintet in G minor was composed in 1940, following extensive work on two large-scale projects – the Sixth Symphony Op 54 and the re-orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov Op 58. The Quintet was first performed on 23 November 1940 by the Beethoven Quartet and Shostakovich himself. The composition was awarded a Stalin Prize of 100,000 roubles. A glance at the list of movements might lead one to imagine that this is a neoclassical work, but its direct emotional power and thematic integration place it on altogether a higher level than mere pastiche.
There’s no satire here, no angst, and no trace of the introversion found in much of his late music. One is tempted to describe it as a happy work, if anything by Shostakovich can be so described. Its tonality, G minor / major, is secure, and the processes are transparent. The second movement fugue is serenely worked out, and the scherzo that follows is disarmingly ebullient. When the fifth and last movement glides to its charming close we can easily imagine that behind those inscrutable Soviet glasses the composer is actually smiling.
I. Prelude: Lento – Poco più mosso – Lento
II. Fugue: Adagio
III. Scherzo: Allegretto
IV. Intermezzo: Lento
V. Finale: Allegretto