Of all the instruments of the orchestra, the cello is perhaps the most “human,” for lack of a better word. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine the sounds the instrument produces emanating from the mouth of an exquisite vocalist. Its tone and colour do not seem to enter the body through the ears, but rather through one’s feet, traveling up from the ground, reverberating in the torso, finally coming to rest right in the middle of one’s chest. Even its size and shape call to mind the human form; seeing it played – and played well – is like watching a vibrant, sensual dance.
In the hands of an expert performer or composer – particularly both – the cello becomes almost a weapon, affecting the listener with any emotion the artist desires, leaving him or her wholly at the mercy of the music. It is a most benevolent and gentle form of cruelty and Yo-Yo Ma is its master.
But let us not discount the effect of the piano, either – especially when dealing with composers of the caliber of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev, and with the virtuosic talent and skill of pianist Emanuel Ax. That there is so much subtlety in such a grand instrument is almost unbelievable, and that it can be showcased so perfectly in the relatively short form of the sonata is testimony to the genius of both the creator and the interpreter.
Virtual contemporaries, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev demonstrate the best of Russian music from the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Featuring them together on one recording, then, is a perfect match, and the specific choice of pieces – Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, and Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 119 – highlights their strengths as well as the unique qualities of their respective styles.
While both pieces require the performers to do some “violence” to their respective instruments – indeed, these sonatas cannot be performed with any hint of passivity – Prokofiev’s offering is slightly more restrained in tone, though no less melodic than Rachmaninoff’s. The former was written almost 50 years after the latter, in 1949, “after the terrible wave of destruction aimed at New Music emanating from the Soviet Communist Party resolutions of 1949,” as written by Detlef Gojowy in the album’s liner notes.
Though Prokofiev was forced into a more traditional framework, there is little traditional about the outcome. His is a work really brought to life by the cello, which almost takes the role of primary instrument. Meanwhile, the piano haunts the listener as it creeps along through the gaps and crevices formed by the imposing cello. There is conflict and unease, to be sure, but never at the expense of intensity or beauty.
That last statement is also true of the Rachmaninoff sonata, though his gives more prominence to the piano, of which he was a famous virtuoso. Written in 1901, this piece demonstrates that the composer “championed the late Romantic type of expression of his day (one thinks of Tchaikovsky, whom Rachmaninoff greatly admired),” writes Gojowy. But Gojowy also highlights Rachmaninoff’s innovation and ability to draw on other musical eras and styles. A notably longer piece, in four movements to Prokofiev’s three, this sonata is definitely the highlight of the recording.
Though the pieces featured on the album were originally recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this 2003 reissue features three additional movements from sonatas by Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss, all more or less also contemporaries. These “bonus tracks” provide the listener with an opportunity to compare the featured works with those of other composers of the period. They also allow the featured soloists to show off just a little more (as if we weren’t impressed enough already!).
Gojowy writes that Rachmaninoff creates “great challenges not only for the interpreter but also for the listener,” a statement that could also be applied to Prokofiev, if to a lesser degree. But if one is willing to overcome that challenge, the payoff more than makes up for the effort.
(Sony Classical/Legacy, 2003)