From Darkness to Light = PROKOFIEV: Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major, Op. 119; SHOSTAKOVICH: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor, Op. 40; RACHMANINOFF: Vocalise for Cello and Piano (arr. L. Rose), Op. 34, No. 14 – Catherine Hewgill, cello/ Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano – Decca Eloquence 481 662 (2/16/18) 54:19 [Distr. by Universal]****:
Conductor and first cellist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Catherine Hewgill, respectively, collaborate (rec. 9 and 13 October 2016) in an all-Russian program that reveals as much of lyric beauty as it does of dramatic flair. The Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119 (1949) of Sergei Prokofiev renounces much of the irony and savage sarcasm of the composer’s youth in favor of an arched melos, possibly motivated by a desire – since Prokofiev had returned to a Stalinist Russia after years of touring abroad in France and the USA – that had little tolerance for “Western formalism.” Immediately, we savor, Andante grave, the low register in Hewgill’s instrument, singing in tandem with the keyboard a luxurious duet that proceeds, con espressione drammatico, to an intense rapture. The low bass tones of each instrument seem to hint at Russian folk song. For all of the music’s militantly animated, and even delicate, energies, the coda resolves in a mood of hazy tranquility.
Playful and skittish gestures, staccato and pizzicato, mark the Scherzo (Moderato), that embrace the extreme range of both participants’ instruments. If the outer sections of the ternary movement display something of the earlier ferocity in Prokofiev, the Trio section combines an expansive tonal range with melodic persuasion of the first order. Easily, we recall that two Russian instrumental giants, Rostropovich and Richter, premiered this work in 1950. The last movement, Allegro ma non troppo, opts for a casual simplicity of expression, a rondo in often symmetrical phrases with two intervening episodes. The bright energy of this music thuds and stomps with an energized glee, including the Russian version of the “Scotch snap.” The serene episode achieves a degree of detached calm rare in Prokofiev, except perhaps in his ballet scores. A rustling motif in quick figures in the cello and then the keyboard will ascend to a grand peroration in cyclic form, returning to materials from movement one, but here enmeshed in currents and eddies of swirling motion.
The 1934 Cello Sonata in D Minor by Dmitri Shostakovich resulted from a request by a professor of cello, Viktor Kubatsky, for a virtuoso piece, this at a time when the composer had been enchanted away from his marriage by a twenty-year-old student named Yelena Konstantinovskaya. Ironically, the relative quietude of political life found a foil in the composer’s tumultuous personal life. The expansive, opening Allegro non troppo assumes a decidedly romantic character, although the mood often shifts into passing dissonances, pregnant pauses, and dark moods, including the transformation of the opening motif into a funeral march. The soaring tone that cellist Hewgill invests into this music invests the opening movement with a wrenching, piquant vibrancy.
The ensuing Allegro (scherzo) projects a rustic, earthy energy, permeated by various, swaggering effects in the cello, especially raucous entries and glissandi harmonics in high register. The piano writing has the ironically brittle coloration we know from the Op. 35 Piano Concerto. The Largo offers a somber love song and lament, simultaneously, the very duality in the composer’s relation to mistress and patient wife. Here, Hewgill’s capacity for poignant but uneasy lyricism holds sway for the entire movement. The Allegro finale follows a prescribed form of a rondo, thrice repeating the main, impish theme, with two contrasted episodes. The latter episode breaks away from the acerbic tone with bravura gymnastics of its own, providing Ashkenazy his concertante moment in spades. The music assumes a pert, lyrical character and then – disappears.
American cello virtuoso Leonard Rose (1918-1984) arranged the popular Vocalise (1915) of Serge Rachmaninoff, a piece whose unabashed nostalgia seems to predict the entire course of the composer’s music after his self-imposed from Russian after 1917. Both Hewgill and Ashkenazy play up the music’s soaring melodic line, fading away at times into pained reminiscence. A studied series of lyrical effects to move those inclined to tears, it works.