Weinberg Sonata no. 1 for Cello and Piano in C, op. 21

performed by Dmitry Yablonsky and Hsin-Ni Liu

(cover image by Toa Heftiba)

We’re continuing our discussion of some of Weinberg’s earliest chamber works. If you haven’t yet read the articles on his string quartet or violin sonata, I suggest you do so. The former was written before he left his homeland, the latter in Tashkent, and this work in 1945, after his arrival in Moscow, living quite near Shostakovich.

It is in two movements, for a total of seventeen minutes, the second movement a few minutes longer than the first. These are early works, no doubt, but Anthony Short, in writing program notes for Naxos about this recording, mentions the association with Shostakovich that is almost always mentioned in the same breath as Weinberg’s name, but justifies it by saying that by this time, they saw each other practically every day. They were neighbors. Of the work itself, he says:

The work’s sense of melancholy is evident in long-breathed musical lines like Shostakovich, but without the irony and sarcasm of the older composer. The sonata is by turn calm and aggressive, and Weinberg reportedly said that it had influenced Shostakovich.

The first movement has two themes, but they’re played by separate instruments, the piano far from just accompanist. The cello begins with a solo statement, to which the piano answers with its own thought, and this is the content for the first movement. The somber solo opening is stately, solemn, and perhaps prefigures the solo cello sonatas, of which he wrote three (ditto for violin, all of which coming much later in his career). I have not heard them, but in researching this piece have heard them praised far more than this work. We’ll get there.

After the pensive introduction from cello, the piano’s response sounds a tinge more ebullient, almost optimistic, and it’s these two ideas that twist and intertwine with each other, and the way the movement unfolds after these two initial statements is really captivating, not just for their interaction but also their own individual lines, the writing for each instrument. There’s something unsettlingly magical about them.

The second movement is more intense in the way you’d expect the music to be after hearing him associated with Shostakovich at every mention. There’s a maniacal,  unrelenting, even grating sense about the piano’s opening statement, which the cello puts to a stop when it enters. The first movement might have been interesting or engaging, but this is breathtaking. You may have thought that statement above about this work being an influence on Shostakovich was a stretch, but this work came long before the elder composer’s violin or viola sonatas.

While the cello had its solo moments in the first movement, its real time to shine, and the obvious climax of the entire piece, is the long cadenza the soloist has in the second movement. It gives a great sense of seriousness to an already heavy movement. After this hefty solo passage, the piano returns and the cello gives us pizzicato, as if its worn out, or changed form. In the quieter, more echoey passages, there’s a haunting sense of solitude or emptiness.

I am speaking more highly of the work than most others do. Much feedback about the work is more along the lines of Robert Friedman‘s review on Amazon, which says that “The music is tonal throughout but tough and dissonant, particularly in the two cello-piano works. The music is intense, but for me sometimes lapses into diffuseness.” It might not be considered one of the greatest cello works ever written, but it’s a damn good one to my ear. I’m a sucker for a two-movement form, and it gives us a very interesting narrative, and splendid interaction among the two instruments, not to mention captivating solo writing.

If this is the most mediocre of the composer’s cello writing, we are in for some truly superb stuff. But not right now. We’re finished with Weinberg, and we have only one more composer in our string of (what will be) six contributors to the chamber music repertoire. After that, we’re doing something entirely different, something, mind you, that we haven’t done in half a year. I can’t believe it. See you soon, and thank you for reading.


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