Program notes


The spirits of three great Russian cellists permeate this CD of music from the late-Romantic and modern eras. Two of their names are familiar: Gregor Piatigorsky and Mstislav Rostropovich, among the greatest instrumentalists of the 20th century. The third is Anatoly Brandukov (1856–1930), a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory who later taught there. He had an international career as a soloist, chamber musician, and conductor, with particular success in Paris. His onetime theory teacher, Tchaikovsky, dedicated his [date] "Pezzo Capriccioso" to Brandukov. In 1901, the young Sergei Rachmaninoff dedicated to the cellist one of his few pieces of chamber music, the Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor. Brandukov and Rachmaninoff premiered the work in Moscow in December 1901, not long after the premiere of one of Rachmaninoff's most enduring works, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.

Brandukov's listing in the current edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (an evaluation by cellist-musicologist Lev Ginzburg) cites his "stylish interpretations, refined temperament, and beautiful, expressive tone." The sonata gives the cellist ample opportunity for expressive playing through page after page of glorious melody. Yet this work also allows the pianist to shine and even frequently dominate the proceedings, reminding us that Rachmaninoff was himself a keyboard virtuoso.

The work’s short, pensive slow introduction presents a characteristic motive for the entire first movement: a rising semitone or half-step (e.g., B Natural to Middle C) heard right away in both instruments. These opening measures are in 3/4 time. For the main Allegro Moderato we shift to 4/4 meter and hear another characteristic cell in the piano part — a rhythmic one this time — two emphatic eighth notes followed by a quarter: ta-ta-TUM. The first theme, ruminative and expansive, in G Minor, is given to the cello with the indication "espressivo e tranquillo." The second theme, in D Major, is heard in the piano first and heralded by the rhythmic cell. The exposition repeat is not taken in this performance; it goes directly to the development section, which focuses a good deal on the rhythmic cell and the rising semitone, and on a rapid 16th-note passage for the piano. The cello has pizzicato (plucked) as well as arco (bowed) passages while triplets in the pianist's right hand set up two-against-three rhythmic patterns. To announce the approach of the recapitulation, the piano has what can only be called a cadenza, even though that kind of virtuoso solo passage is more associated with concertos than sonatas. The cello re-enters with broad leaps over piano chords to lead to the recapitulation, with the second theme returning in G Major in sonata-form tradition. The piano's 16th notes coming out of the development introduce the energetic coda.

The Allegro Scherzando second movement begins and ends in C Minor. Its opening passages require the cellist to alternate quickly between pizzicato and arco over broken-octave patterns in the piano, played pianissimo at first and building up to fortissimo chords. The cello introduces a lyrical second theme in E-Flat Major. The "trio" midsection, very lyrical in both parts, modulates to A-Flat Major before the hushed C Minor returns for an almost note-for-note recapitulation of the opening.

Like the Scherzando, the Andante movement is ternary (A-B-A) in form. The piano opens with a simple E-Flat Major tune that's picked up and expanded by the cello. The midsection returns to the work's home key of G Minor. Although the Andante's time signature is 4/4, the pace is varied by numerous triplet passages. G Major is the principal key of the fast-paced and emphatic finale. The triplet-laced first theme is dramatically propulsive in both parts; the second theme, marked "espressivo" for the cello, is a straightforward tune that firmly outlines the contours of a D Major scale. The development portion is dominated by triplet patterns and heavy chords for the piano. The recapitulation returns both themes in G Major. A sudden pause is heralded by a very low G in the bass of the piano, with broken chords above it and a soft cello melody that briefly brings back the two eighth notes and one quarter rhythmic cell and rising semitone of the first movement before the piece ends with a vigorous coda marked Vivace.

Few music-lovers will need to be introduced to the extraordinary life and career of Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007): cellist, pianist, conductor, composer, political dissident, and freedom-fighter. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten were among the 20th-century musical giants who composed cello music that Rostropovich introduced to audiences worldwide. Less well-known than these is Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881-1950), who combined the careers of composer, critic, and teacher. His early education combined military training with musical studies; he served as an officer in the Russian Imperial Army during World War I and later was part of the early Soviet military establishment. But his longest tenure of any kind was on the composition faculty of the Moscow Conservatory, from 1921 until his death.

Miaskovsky is best remembered for having composed 27 symphonies, few of which are currently performed (several appeared in the repertory of the Chicago Symphony under Frederick Stock in the 1930s and 40s, however). Miaskovsky's other works include concertos, band music, string quartets, piano scores, and a great quantity of songs. One of his last works, the Cello Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, full of song-like melodies, was written in 1948–49 and dedicated to Rostropovich.

The sonata's style is very much in the lyrical late-Romantic vein in which Miaskovsky was comfortable and prolific all his life; it takes no note of the dissonance and atonality that had come to dominate classical music in the mid-20th century. Like pretty much everything by Miaskovsky, it's seldom played nowadays. Although it can be found on a number of recordings, it's likely to be a discovery for most listeners: a discovery combining lyricism, expressiveness, and grace. The opening Allegro Moderato movement is based on the usual structures of sonata form, but there are no clear divisions between sections and themes; the music feels continuous. The rippling outlines of A Minor and C Major triads in the piano part support a cello theme that's reiterated in a higher register. A secondary theme in C Major moves in faster notes, mostly eighths instead of quarters, but the rippling effect continues. The development gives the first theme, transposed, to the piano, while the cello explores its full range from lowest to highest. A modulation to F-Sharp Minor punctuates the recapitulation, the second theme is briefly re-stated in A, and the coda is based mainly on the opening theme.

The 4/4 meter of the first movement is contrasted by the 6/8 triple-meter of the Andante Cantabile movement, whose first cello theme in F Major is a songful waltz melody. New material is introduced in F Minor and the movement proceeds through several key changes while its mood shifts from serene to rhapsodic as its harmonies become more chromatic. A concluding passage gives the cello a long descending scale over piano octaves. At the opening of the finale, Allegro con Spirito, the cello is asked to play spiccato: bouncing the bow across the strings instead of drawing it smoothly. This accentuates each note of the scurrying main theme, in A Minor, supported by chords and octaves in the piano accented off the beat. This movement is a Rondo, with the insistent main theme returning several times, contrasted with more relaxed sections, though the pace and forward propulsion never really slacken. There are stronger dynamic contrasts here than in the earlier movements, reinforcing the vigor of the themes and providing a sequence of unexpected surprises. At the very end, fortissimo decreases to piano, but the music does not just die away: the piece ends with a pair of triumphant fortissimo chords.

Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) studied music in both Vienna and Moscow. He lived most of his life in the Soviet Union, and clashed occasionally with the system's rigid artistic ideas. His last years he spent teaching, writing, and composing in the German city of Hamburg. His large work-list includes symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas, choral works, and numerous film scores. Influences that have been discerned in his works, or that he himself cited, include Russian romanticism, the Austro-German symphonic tradition, Shostakovich, serialism, Baroque music, sacred music from the Middle Ages onward, jazz, and folk music. His symphonies can seem to channel Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Berg, both quoting and distorting these sources. The result is usually termed “polystylistic.” What stylistic analysis can leave out is Schnittke's sense of humor, which emerges in pieces that mock but also pay loving homage to music from the past. One such piece is "Musica Nostalgica," written for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1992. Both composer and soloist must have smiled over and greatly enjoyed this simple Minuet, a wry little encore whose harmonies are almost aggressively diatonic. Perhaps its only departure from the 18th-century Minuet tradition comes through being mostly in a minor key (A Minor). After the simple opening melody exchanged between the players, there's a short cello solo serving as midsection, then a varied repeat of the opening. Haydn would have loved it.

The all-too-brief, 43-year life of Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) witnessed his transformation from a post-Chopin keyboard Romantic a post-Wagnerian musical philosopher espousing grand gestures and large orchestras. In his final years his focus shifted again, toward futuristic experimentation in the realms of polytonality and atonality. One wonders what innovations might have emerged from a longer lifespan.

Scriabin was a genius both on the small scale (e.g., his shorter piano works) and on the larger canvases represented by his full-length piano sonatas and works for orchestra. The Op. 8 Etudes of 1894, a set of 12 miniatures obviously modeled on Chopin's two sets of similar pieces, reveal further influences from the virtuoso tradition of Liszt, Scriabin's own taste for chromatic harmonies, and an air of moodiness often identified as a specifically Russian form of melancholy. The folk-like themes of the Op. 8, No. 11 Etude in B-Flat Minor, mellow and lyrical, must have felt especially apt for transcription to legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who created this lovely encore piece. Labeled Andante Cantabile and sticking mostly to the minor mode, it begins and ends very softly, with rich piano chords and passage-work supporting the cello’s song.

Serge Prokofiev's ballet Cinderella comes from the years of World War II, when he also worked on the opera War and Peace: two 20th-century masterworks inspired by literary genres of the Romantic age — the fairy tale and the Russian novel. The ballet was unveiled at the Bolshoi Theater in 1945. Prokofiev extracted a set of piano pieces, Op. 97, from the full score and transcribed one of them for cello and piano, Op. 97b. This is the Adagio from Act 2, a pas de deux (duet) for Cinderella and the Prince, who have just discovered each other at the ball. The pace is that of a waltz, beginning almost hesitantly and gradually becoming more passionate.

Andrea Lamoreaux is music director of 98.7 WFMT, Chicago’s classical experience.



Production Credits

Producer James Ginsburg
Engineer Bill Maylone
Recorded October 27–30, 2008, in the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, WFMT, Chicago
Cello 1772 Giuseppe Gagliano
Cello bow François Xavier Tourte, c. 1815, the “De Lamare” on extended loan through the Stradivari Society of Chicago Steinway Piano; Charles Terr, Technician


See also:

Program notes Irina's notes Critic's reviews Full booklet