Cello and piano share the spotlight in Rachmaninov’s sonata

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 28.12.2014

A powerful new recording of Rachmaninov’s familiar Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor Op. 19 (Light and Shadow, Becsta Records) manages to take this rich Russian music to new heights. It ranks comfortably alongside several impressive readings by other major cellists.

This version is more than welcome; the dark mysteries of the composition will never be exhausted.

Rachmaninov stabs the listener’s heart with a poignant half-step opening motif and toys with it for the first minute or so, then states the main theme, all at a lento pace that drives relentlessly forward. Memorable themes appear, fade and return through allegro and andante movements, ending with a technically challenging vivace.

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Cellist Rebecca Hartka and pianist Alys Terrien-Queen, both from the Boston area, tackled the sonata with personal dedication. Ms. Hartka recalls studying the score after many years away from it, and tells me she better grasped Rachmaninov’s intentions this time around. “It really resonated,” she says.

Rachmaninov was emerging from a long bout of depression and creative blockage when he wrote the sonata in 1901. He dedicated the piece to his friend the cellist Anatoly Brandukov who also advised him on the cello’s potential.

Is it really a cello sonata? Sometimes it is known simply as a cello sonata but Rachmaninov strived to give cello and piano equal prominence, and indeed Hartka and Terrien-Queen do so. They opted to call it Sonata for Cello and Piano. Some other duos have been less well balanced. Could the equilibrium be attributable to this rare pairing of two women? Most other recordings are by mixed genders or two men. 

Of particular interest in the general discography of this composition is the recording by Mstislav Rostropovich and Vladimir Horowitz, whose extra-slow andante effectively brings out the melancholy, as evidenced here.

Two other pairs who have left a lasting impression with me include Natalya Gutman and Vyacheslav Poprugin, and Lynn Harrell and Yuja Wang. Arkadi Volodos transcribed the andante movement for solo piano, helping to make the theme even more familiar to the public.

The American duo made a bold choice by selecting Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano and Cello as a companion piece on this album. I say bold because these two sonatas are a study in contrasts – both in terms of style and content. After 35 minutes of Russian depths, it comes as a sprightly relief to hear Poulenc’s French bounce and humor, so airy as to be reminiscent of Jean Francaix’s works. 

One can almost see the players smiling as they romp through the piece. In program notes, Poulenc is described as coming from “Les Six” French composers known in the 1020s and 1930s for their “light-hearted, jazz-inflected, nose-thumbing” compositions. The cello sonata came slightly later.

Poulenc also relied on a cellist, Pierre Fournier, for advice during composition and dedicated the sonata to him. Somehow they managed to create a spirited composition despite most of the work being carried out during the German occupation of France in the 1940s. 

To explore the background of this fascinating CD, I invited Ms. Hartka to join me in an email interview. She agreed, and shares her thoughts in this edited excerpt:

 

MJ: How did you happen to match up the Poulenc and the Rachmaninov? Was there much debate with Ms. Terrien-Queen?

RH: No, Alys claimed that the first time she heard me play she thought how nice it would be to do the Rachmaninov sonata with me. When she asked me to read it with her, I hadn't played the piece since my masters degree, and the richness of the writing spoke to me in a much more profound way than it had when I first encountered it. It was as if I really understood the piece for the first time, yet it also felt like coming home. It really resonated. And I felt it was time to make another album, so immediately it just clicked. Alys really has a strong connection with Rachmaninov, so she seemed very excited at the prospect.

I’ve been quite obsessed with French music. I can't get enough of the harmonies and colors, especially early 20th century. When I encountered the Poulenc Sonata, the jazz-like harmonies, the paradox of simultaneous sad and buoyant characters enchanted me immediately. 

MJ: What kind of adjustments did you have to make to switch styles?

RH: The two pieces are so very different -- one with rich big sound and full vibrato, the other with a light and nuanced bow, with a variety of articulations, and mostly a lighter and faster vibrato. This contrast seemed very compelling to us. The similarities began to emerge -- the darkness lurking behind, Rachmaninov suffering from depression and writers block, Poulenc in Nazi-occupied Paris. Given the shadows in my own life at the time, it made sense that these works would be my soundtrack. Music is nothing if not a compassionate embrace of our shared humanity.

MJ: What was your view of these movements and how they fit together? 

RH: Both sonatas have an almost cinematic character to them. They are both larger than life in their very different ways. The Rach first movement opens with an almost primordial quality, with fragments and questions, before the main theme begins. The melancholy first theme takes some hints from these seedling ideas with its half step motive and obsessive spinning quality. I think spinning motives appear throughout the sonata, with my favorite examples in the piano part at the climactic central part of the second movement, while the cello soars to its top register, and in the final movement during the second theme, where the piano sparkles and spins during a short solo section. It makes me think of snowflakes falling.

Rachmaninov offers one gorgeous melody after another but most glorious of all, in my opinion is the second theme of the fourth movement, which sits so beautifully in the warm rich cello range.

We have several good takes of this, but went for the one where I put on the brakes and luxuriate in the chocolaty beauty of the writing. Every time I play that passage I feel a warmth in my belly, like I'm leaning back after a delicious meal and basking in the sunshine.

MJ: And the Poulenc – did it touch you in a different way? 

RH: Yes, throughout the sonata, Poulenc vacillates between bouncy, energetic curiosity and often subtly sensuous lyricism. But his micro moods are vast and complicated, humorous one moment, achingly tender in the next, like the muted cello melody at the close of the second movement that ends with those fragile harmonics. But I also have a visceral reaction to the opening piano chords of the second movement. For almost a year I truly couldn't hear these chords without tears bursting involuntarily from my eyes.

Most joyful is his third movement where the piano and cello toss phrases back and forth. As the title (Ballabile) indicates, he had dance in mind for this movement. I can imagine leaps and spins. It also reminds me of the bustling of a happy city street, with all the smells and sights passing quickly from an open car window, or a bicycle.

MJ: How much have you and Alys played together, concertizing or recording? You seem in total sync. 

RH: We've only worked together for just over a year, but pretty intensely.

I think what you are noticing is a certain musical equality, yet independence. We did our best throughout this project to allow both of our voices to emerge both independently and in conversation, while forging a shared interpretation. We talked as much as we played, sharing our imaginations and observations. I think this helped us get inside the music. We really worked at it.

MJ: How did you manage to make these pieces sing the way they do? 

RH: The Poulenc was especially challenging for me. It's so gorgeous -- the subtle color shifts, the whiffs of baked goods, the dance-like melodies contrasted with a dark sadness. It gives such a sense of time and place, occupied Paris, with all its beauties but under a cloud. It's challenging to capture this contrast, and the rapid, almost manic character shifts.

The cello writing is not at all idiomatic, it's quite awkward in fact, he much preferred wind instruments to stringed instruments, and one can sense this in the writing.

The challenge in Rachmaninov was in pacing and drawing out the intensity, so as to illustrate the deep, oceanic passion of the work. It's such emotional music that engaging musically is really no effort for me. Instead, it was about not overdoing it -- an easy mistake to make in romantic music. It's an intensity tempered by the dark and cold of the Russian winters. From this piece I learned to foster a patient, deep and boiling inner musical heat.

MJ: What can you say about the fine balance of piano and cello? Neither of you seemed to fight for dominance. Did this just happen naturally?

RH: Alys is a very experienced collaborator and quite sensitive to balance. I have also put much energy into developing a big sound, and this is important in the Rachmaninov. Also, much of this we owe to our engineer, Joseph Chilorio, for expert placement of microphones.


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