========= from the cover ==========
Sergey Rachmaninov and Nikolay Myaskovsky were near-contemporaries and died at much the same age. Rachmaninov pursued three careers, as composer, pianist and conductor; Myaskovsky spent much of his life teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Neither composer was attuned to the urgent spirit of enquiry of the 20th century, but whereas the travelling Rachmaninov picked up some influences of modernism towards the end of his composing life the music of the sedentary Myaskovsky only gained in clarity and simplicity.
Rachmaninov wrote very few mature chamber works and the Cello Sonata is by some margin the finest as well as the last of these, written in 1901 when he was 28. He dedicated the work to the eminent Russian cellist, and personal friend, Anatoly Brandukov, who was noted, according to the cellist and musicologist Lev Ginzburg, "for his stylish interpretations, his refined temperament and his inspired playing...". The Sonata is not, however, in any sense a virtuoso showpiece for the cellist. On the contrary, a glance at almost any page of the score shows that it is the piano part, black with notes, which often demands a concerto-like virtuosity from the player.
After the Lento introduction, with its prominent rising semitone, the cello gives out the first, song-like theme, espressivo e tranquillo. The somewhat square and Germanic second theme is taken by the piano, closely followed by the cello. Expansive Romantic though he was, Rachmaninov here nods to Classical precept and provides a double bar for a literal repeat of the exposition. The development is concerned very little with the main themes and much more with the introduction's rising semitone and the important, and characteristic, rhythmic cell of two quavers and a crotchet that punctuated the appearance of the first theme.
The vigorous cadenza that springs from the end of the development underlines the dominance of the pianist here. The energy of this passage spills over into the returning Allegro molto and 19 bars pass before the music gets back to G minor and the start of the recapitulation, which is somewhat fragmentary in the case of the first theme but fully realised as regards the second.
The scherzo is a very tidy formal structure, broadly ternary in outline but with some internal subdivision. Thus the skeletal scberzando theme in C minor is followed by an expressive cantabile in E flat, after which the scberzando theme returns (with a brief reference to the cantabile) before the music modulates into A flat major for the Trio. The flowing theme of the Trio is a not so distant relative of the main theme of the first movement. After the Trio all the opening material is repeated note-for-note, before a 15-bar coda ends the movement.
The Andante, also ternary, is simpler. The graceful main theme in E flat is heard first on the piano before the cello initiates some elegant imitative interplay. The G minor middle section, reminiscent in manner of the Second Piano Concerto, completed a few months earlier, gives the cello an opportunity to develop a strong, impassioned line, before the opening theme returns in sonorous piano chords. These develop into a massive accompaniment for the cello, forte, becoming fortissimo, then falling away to a pianissimo conclusion.
The Allegro mosso Finale is a clear-cut sonata movement in G major, with a fast-running main theme festooned with triplets and a bold and striking second theme in D major, which possesses a leaping optimism not generally associated with Rachmaninov. After the development the opening material is exactly recapitulated, save that the second theme returns in the customary tonic major. Before the coda Rachmaninov adds a ruminative 17-bar pendant to the second theme over a deep pedal G" and the work ends vivace and fortissimo.
There is scarcely a bar in Myaskovsky's Second Cello Sonata of 1948-49 that would have seemed out of place when Rachmaninov wrote his Sonata in 1901. Despite his friendship with artists of more modern outlook it seems that thirty years of teaching at the Moscow Conservatory did not persuade Myaskovsky to widen his frontiers, and nothing in the Sonata suggests that it was a product of the fraught period immediately after the Second World War. Forty years on it hardly seems to matter, and the music speaks simply and clearly in its own voice.
The crystalline purity of the A minor arpeggios that begin the accompaniment to the first movement's main theme suggests an untroubled Russian melancholy, and the broad and flowing tune from the cello is very Russian indeed, with a keening quality that recalls old songs from old days. The more heroic second theme, in C major, allows the cello's song to flow on unabated: this is very vocal music. After a relatively short development section the two main themes return in full flood and the movement ends with a quiet postlude based on the opening theme.
The main theme of the Andante cantabile is an elegant waltz that would have been at home amidst the chandeliers and decollete of the salons of 19th-century St. Petersburg. Two other themes form a contrasting group, one with a gentle rocking line, the other based on a repeating crotchet figure that exploits the cross rhythm of three beats against two, although the basic pulse of the movement remains intact.
The work ends with a busy sonata-rondo, Allegro con spirtto. The spiccato theme flickers over the rhythm of a Russian folk-dance, while the swaying tune of the first episode evokes an image of peasant voices raised in song. After its appearance on the cello in C major this tune is taken up by the piano, first in E major and then again in C major. The E major passage generates an accompaniment in crotchet triplets on the cello, and the second episode in this movement uses that rhythm as a basis for a more sophisticated, surging melody that is immediately given three times, in F minor, A flat major and D minor. After a further appearance of the Rondo theme both episodes are repeated before the scampering semiquavers hurry the Sonata to its end.
-1988 John Cox