SHOSTAKOVICH: Sonatas for Violin and Viola – Duo TschoppBovino – Genuin 16428, 62:29 (6/6/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
(Mirjam Tschopp – violin & viola/ Riccardo Bovino – piano)
Challenging and desolate late works of Shostakovich (just in case you need some sobering up.)
If there were a Rotten Tomatos Index for 20th century chamber music, one could be certain that the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich are among the only works that would receive equally high scores from both critics and audience. If you left out the first as well as the last six quartets, this score would put them among the most cherished music of all time. Likewise, the trios and the quintet are works of enduring appeal and are increasingly performed and recorded. Those who have seriously engaged with this music are marked for life, imprinted with its message and emotional power. Of course, the last third of this composer’s quartets involve special challenges. One must face the famous bleakness and also the sense that a formidable technique has been purposefully narrowed down. A lot of craft and architecture have been jettisoned. If in the quartets from the ‘40s and ‘50s, he was building a house, in his final quartets, he is building a coffin.
Many of our readers have surely heard a revelatory performance of a string quartet and straightaway felt compelled to find more Shostakovich chamber music. Expectations rise at finding in the composer’s vast oeuvre a couple of sonatas for violin/viola and piano. The late date suggests that these works belong to that final period in which Shostakovich plumbed the depths of despair. Still, this period has its rewards. There is no slackening in the expressive power of his language, even if it feels like an entire dimension of the music has been rescinded. It is a question of whether or not one is prepared for the wintry journey.
The Duo TschoppBovino stare at the us from the cover, taking seriously their role in giving us that which, if it doesn’t kill us, will perhaps make us stronger. The Violin Sonata (1968) comes first, and it immediately invites us into the Shostakovich nightmare. On the opening Andante, there is an odd detachment to the introductory subject on the piano. The melody stumbles along until it meets the violin, whose tone is immediately arresting. One feels a profound rightness to the spirit and intentions of the composer, a feeling that will be amply reinforced throughout the recording and on both instruments. A hint of folk-themed melody gives way immediately to asperity and staccato gasps. For eleven minutes, we follow a sinister path. Of harmony, there is little in the conventional sense. And yet, the textures and rhythms vary. Short episodes broken up by many pauses give the impression of a mind that can neither follow a thought or finish a sentence.
The following Allegretto pulses with urgency and vehemence. There are some farcical gestures and a dazzling interplay between the instruments, perfectly executed. Without the tonal finesse of Mirjam Tschopp, the diabolical fiddling could have overtaxed even the most willing ears.
Perhaps the listener thought that he had paid his dues in the first two movements, but this is far from true. The concluding Largo-Andante is an unremittingly bleak meditation on the nature of things. It is the tale reflected in the headline: “Man without hope loses the last bit of hope that he didn’t know he had.” Those who have sat through the 15th quartet with a solitary candle flickering upon the faces of the quartet members will recognize this as similar testimony to darkness. Perhaps in a final rebellion against this squashing gloom, the violin resorts to a strident sawing. Needless to say, this is a poor remedy.
The Opus 147 Sonata for Viola and Piano is Shostakovich’s final work. It was completed in July of 1975, a month before his death. Ms. Tschopp has traded in her violin for the viola, and she sounds just as persuasive on this instrument. In fact, most of the attraction of the piece involves her nuanced expressive details. The Moderato is predictably grim. Supposedly, it contains many in-references to both the composer’s own works and works of others. In any case, the introversion doesn’t provide much of a road-map to a piece which seems to be about lostness.
Against all logic, the Allegretto is full of surprises. There is a jaunty dance and some typically monophonic folk motifs. The viola steals the show with a heart-rending cadenza before the duo reach find the lower range of their respective instruments in a tentative ending filled with ambiguity. A final Adagio offers perhaps one final glimpse of this most mysterious of 20th century artists. It sounds like the piano is willing itself towards elegiac farewell in an almost Beethovenian key. But there is no moonlight, and the melody which might charm the ragged soul keeps giving out. Still, the viola sounds ever more beautiful until the end; in fact. I think composer and musician may very well be paying a tribute to the desolating tale of Anton Chekhov “Rothschild’s Violin,” in which tragedy of the human condition is harbored in a violin which allows mute and stricken humans to say that which, otherwise, could not be communicated.
These are outstanding performances of a repertoire that will never be a crowd favorite. The viola work may have a greater draw since it is inevitable that some will look for a special sort of summing up in this very last work by a composer who was so secretive and reticent about his inner life. I think, however, that the 1968 work is probably closer in spirit to, say, the 13th String Quartet and might be sought out for those who wish to plumb those particular depths.
It should be mentioned that the sound engineering on this recording is of the highest merit, and the viola of Ms. Schopp is one of the most expressive instruments that I have had the pleasure of hearing.
TrackList: Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134 [Andante, Allegretto, Largo-Andante] Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 [Moderato, Allegretto, Adagio]
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