Outlasting the unfinished: Shostakovich’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano (1945) with rarely heard chamber arrangements.
SHOSTAKOVICH: The Two Violin Sonatas & Rare Chamber Works – Sasha Rozhdestvensky, v., /Jeremy Menuhin & Mookie Lee-Menuhin p./ Ilona Domnich, sop./ Alexandra Sherman, mezzo – First Hand CD 37, K&A Productions, 69:46 (1/1/16) ****:
Newly-discovered works from beloved composers are rare. Artists have the opportunity to approach them with unique lucidity, unhindered by recordings and editions. Convincing listeners that the works are of lasting value, however, can be challenging. The FHR release featuring Shostakovich’s Unfinished Violin Sonata is up to the task.
All works on the album are performed exquisitely. The unfinished sonata reveals Shostakovich at his most expressive: searching melody juxtaposed with driving rhythm. To accept it as cohesive, the work must be programmed in a way that helps suspend belief in the need for expected structure and length (think Ives’ art songs). Instead of the unfinished following the complete sonata, as heard on the recording, a better choice would be to open with the unfinished and end with the complete. The unfinished deserves an attempt at unaffected listening.
Surprisingly, in a situation of parallel universe recording releases, the FHR was not the only 2015 release claiming this premiere. Challenge Classics released Wartime Consolations, featuring Shostakovich as the capstone, performed by violinist Linus Roth and pianist José Gallardo. Its approach is quite different.
The FHR recording uses a warm sound and live response, humanizing the melody and inviting repeat listening. Rozhdestvensky’s rich sound and expressive vibrato is reminiscent of Kreisler. Menuhin emphasizes rumbling bass with liberal pedal. The performance includes a coda by Gennady Rozhdestvensky, which complements in the way that beautiful new portions of a building pay tribute to the old by blending and remaining independent simultaneously.
Challenge Classics uses a sparse sound palette, setting a cooler scene. Roth uses minimal vibrato when the piano joins, especially in the sections of rhythmic unity. Gallardo’s dry pedaling reveals intertwining lines stressing instrumental partnership.
Though Western culture values finished products, “unfinished” is not as damning as, say, “incomplete.” There is a sense of lost opportunity, but not of finality. Both recordings reveal a future for the Shostakovich Unfinished Violin Sonata.