SHOSTAKOVICH: Cello Sonata in D minor, Op. 40 (1934);  Two Pieces for cello and piano, from the Second Ballet Suite (1951);  Sonata Op. 147 (1975), (played on cello but originally for viola) – Michal Kanka, cello /Jaromíř Klepac, piano –  Praga Digitals multichannel SACD DSD 250 264, 63:59 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

For Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), 1934 was a year of mixed fortune.  It saw the première of “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, and the composition of one of his only three solo sonatas, written when he and his first wife, Nina, had had a serious row.  He remained in Moscow staying with Viktor Kubatsky who commissioned the work, while Nina returned to Leningrad, though she and the composer remarried the following year.

The substantial first movement alternates between the deeply gloomy and reflective, and episodes of great tenderness, culminating in a time-stopping climax.  The second movement is a scherzo whose flavours are witty and light-hearted, at least on the surface.  The Largo’s nachtmusik feeling is of the open air contrasting utterly with the skittish and energetic finale.  Kanka and Klepac bring out all the subtleties in the writing and are well captured by the recording engineers in a bigger than expected acoustic, though I did not notice any clouding of detail.  Alban Gerhardt and Steven Osborne, on a standard CD (Hyperion CDA67534) are rather more expansive in the first and third movements, but slightly quicker in the last, all to good effect.

While the Hyperion disc offers eight of the short pieces for cello and piano based on ballet and film music, in addition to the cello sonata and other works by Schnittke,  Kanka and Klepac follow the cello sonata with a couple pieces from that ballet collection – the Spring Song included on both discs.  Excellent recital pieces, especially for encores, these are miniatures worth exploring.

The programme concludes with Shostakovich’s late masterpiece, perhaps his last completed work, the sonata for viola and piano, played here on the cello.  Michal Kanka opted to play the viola part as written and not Shafran’s transcription, and his fine playing overcomes the difficulties of coping with the viola’s range.  The first movement’s twilight feeling, with spare textures, leads on to an allegretto, based on themes from an unfinished opera based on Gogol’s “The Gamblers”, a Russian-sounding scherzo.  

Like the 15th Symphony, this sonata contains substantial quotations. Dedicated to Feodor Druzhinin of the Beethoven Quartet from 1968, the work takes some of its inspiration in the last movement from Beethoven – listeners will spot the piano intertwining that theme from the Moonlight Sonata – and other composers, almost like reminiscences of times past in a daydream.  Kanka and Klepac produce a powerful reading, their instruments well-captured by the recording engineers.  The multichannel SACD programme gives a realistic feeling to the sound and it’s nearly as good in stereo.

This is another first-class addition to Pierre Barbier’s ever expanding catalogue of chamber music on Praga Digitals.

— Peter Joelson