Shostakovich Sonata for Violin and Piano in G, Op. 134

performed by David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter

Dmitri had been wanting to write a new, second concerto for me as a present for my 60th birthday. However, there was an error of one year in his timing. The concerto was ready for my 59th birthday. Shortly afterwards, Dmitri seemed to think that, having made a mistake, he ought to correct it. That is how he came to write the Sonata … I had not been expecting it, though I had long been hoping that he would write a violin sonata.

-David Oistrakh

It would seem Shostakovich had a pretty close relationship with Oistrakh, having written both of his violin concertos and this sonata with him in mind. It perhaps isn’t any surprise, then, that with Oistrakh to consult about technique and style and what the instrument (or soloist) was capable of, the violin works of the composer are incredibly powerful not only because of their suitability for the instrument, but obviously as any of the other works of the same composer.

The violin sonata is a work I was actually a little bit apprehensive to begin writing about. It seems so dark, foreboding, uncomfortably expressive and raw… and while the concerto from earlier this week seemed much the same way, it was slightly more colorful, louder. The sonata is uncomfortably intimate, personal, very close, sparse, and the effect is palpable.

Both the unofficial (with Moishe Vainberg) and official premieres were in 1969. The work is in three movements and lasts about a half hour. Wikipedia says that “the sonata is cast in three contrasting movements originally titled Pastorale, Allegro Furioso, and Variations on a Theme, respectively, but simply given Roman numerals in all published editions.” The same article also refers to parallels between this work and Prokofiev’s first violin sonata, of 1946, a piece with which I am unfamiliar, describing both as having “darkly threatening opening material with hushed tracery, that returns near the movements’ respective finishes, and both end as inconclusively as they begin.”

What I personally feel about this work is a kind of… emptiness, a loneliness, in what the article refers to as “empty or open harmonies”, a term I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. There are lots of octaves, or unison or ambiguous notes where, instead of a big, full chord, even blatant dissonance, there are few sounds, a sparse, barren landscape of music, like concrete skeletons of buildings ravaged by war.

Something interesting to note in the first three bars (the piano gets the first eight bars by itself) is that the piano plays all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, only repeating in the eighth-note figure, sounding like an echo in a vast empty landscape. This sounds more like Bartok’s “you can write music with all twelve pitches that sounds tonal” or a tipping of his cap to serialism rather than an actual intended application of it. The music, as stated, is barren, grim, as if the violin and piano are the last two starving survivors of something, an almost torpid but still moving first section, where the piano echoes its up-and-down chromatic figure in various ways until suddenly the long, connected, spacious lines are cut short. They’re replaced by sharp, crisp staccato notes, in a march-like rhythm, something not unfamiliar to Shostakovich’s work. These two themes have their contrasts but are really just parts of the whole as the first movement, a bleak beginning, and it doesn’t get much brighter.

The second movement is bold and in-your-face-ish, with a commanding presence in the violin, backed by chordal hammers from piano. The attitude of the work moves quickly from an almost triumphant stridence to a nervous near-chaos. The piano has some frantic runs that sound like crowds scattering before there begins a waltz-like (maybe?) passage that begins with six heavy, unison accented chords. There are moments here and there (like this waltzy bit and the apparently confident opening) that seem to hint at success or triumph or a break of tension and uneasiness, but with an opus number as late as this one in the composer’s career, there isn’t much repose to be had, even in this shortest of the movements in this sonata.

In the beginning of the finale (the former ‘variations on a theme’) it is the piano’s turn to enter confidently, but the mood is still heavy, like a kind of inextinguishable, violent determination. I hate to keep using elaborate, exaggerated descriptors for this music, but it’s real gut-punching stuff. There’s a kind of relentless stickiness to Shostakovich’s themes and melodies, and when you hear them once, you hear them for the rest of the piece, unlike (for me) with some more Romantic-era things where a theme or subject is ‘hidden’ in transpositions and transformations and recycled and reused, and I love  Brahms, but there’s another sort of application to the ubiquity and unending persistence of an idea, almost like it possesses you.

The ‘theme’ of the finale is plucked by the violin, and when the piano enters, I myself hear some echoes of the very beginning, the first movement. It’s somber, and if you haven’t already been immersed by this bleak, gray, pained world that the piece has created, then wait until the violin bows its first notes in this final movement. It begins unassumingly enough, but the variations express a huge scope of emotional and musical content. I can’t describe it. There are tender, baby blue and light pink passages of near-caresses, but also frightening explosions of virtuosity in cadenza-like passages for both instruments. It’s fitting as the climax to the work, the emotional centerpiece, taking up about half of the playing time of the sonata.

The effect of a theme-and-variations movement is a purely (absolute) musical experience, but it can also create a terribly engaging narrative, and Shostakovich has done both splendidly well without detracting from either.

After a powerful, intense movement as the end to an almost too-raw sonata, the piece ends ambiguously in a fading musical fog, tremolo notes played on the bridge marked  morendo… a very ‘it is what it is’ end, no explanation.

In some cases, I feel like efforts like the above to explain a piece are really useless. We want to share our excitement or interest or emotional response with someone, say, when we watch a movie, but instead of giving people the play by play of the film (“and then next it cuts to a scene where they’re having breakfast, but it’s rainy outside, and dimly lit, and you can hear….”), we just drag that person to a place where it can be watched and say “let me just show you” and you sit there, maybe watching them more than the movie, checking for that response to see if they’re getting it.

We have the advantage of technology these days, where you can gift someone an album on iTunes (apparently only if they’re in the same country as you), send them a YouTube link or buy tickets to a concert, but how much are we actually listening, setting aside our reports and bills and cell phones and paying attention to (at least some of) it? I might be more hardcore than many others, but some music isn’t background, and no matter how much you describe the individual elements that make up a piece like this, they’re still more than just the sum of their parts. They create a world, one you have to go find, walk around in, and be willing to experience, maybe more than once, like when you’re getting to know a new town. But in the end, you’ve learned more about just a piece of music with a title and a number. You’ve had an experience, actually listened to thoughts from someone else’s brain, and as subjective as that experience still is, it’s also very powerful.

Enough of the cheesy art appreciation speech though. I’ll mention this in whatever closing/review article I might write about this month’s little collection of works, but I’m getting a bit addicted to the violin sonata as a form… intimate, but intense and full of expressive potential, a real way to get to know the composer.

But that’s all for Shostakovich for now, and next week (actually tomorrow, sort of) we’ll move on to something lighter and more modern, the final section of our little ‘violins and the people who write for them’ series, so stay tuned.

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