Rachmaninov Sonata for Piano and Cello Op.19

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Subject: Cello
Last updated: 11/01/2018
Tags: cello, rachmaninov, sonata

The three published sonatas of Rachmaninov, one for piano and cello, and two for piano solo, hold a stylistic affinity with the two sonatas of Glazunov, but are regarded as being superior - mainly because of their being more genuinely musical. Although they are equally passionate in their lyricism, they are freer of sentimentality. They show broader and more positive form and better wealth of melody and rhythm, coupled with expressive, chromatic harmony, and a greater advanced treatment of the keyboard.

The first of the three was the Op.19 for piano and cello, following the completion of the Second Piano Concerto. The sonata has much in common with the Concerto - the general elegiac and tragical mood which permeates it, the depth, the maturity, and the restrained and clever originality of the musical material. Other comparisons can be drawn with the Suite for Two Pianos, also of this period.

After the opening two note rising semi-tone solo on the cello, used later in the development, the piano introduces the rhythmic leit-motif of the development, and the cello sings over the top. The repeat of the exposition, marked in the score but rarely observed these days in practice, would extend an already lengthy work, lasting over half and hour, unnecessarily.

The opening notes of the first theme are interesting in that like the Waltz in the Suite, they have the same shape of the 'Dies Irae', reappearing later in the right hand of the piano part in the final bars of the third movement. Although this shows how instilled this four note figure was in Rachmaninov, it could, however just be a coincidence.

The second movement has an awkward rhythmic figure in the first theme, contrasting with two lyrical melodies, akin again to the Waltz, where the theme only gets a very brief exposure.

The best of the four movements is the Andante, where the opening for piano shows the composers fondness for the interval of a fifth. It is a wonderful movement in which piano and cello weave in and out of each other, creating a beautiful rhapsodic piece. The ending again is like the Waltz, just a tinkling of bells.

The work lies primarily in minor keys, but its dominating mood is that of sweet but gentle melancholy with hints of the composer's self-doubts and insecurity. Due to the free recurrences of the opening theme in all movements, a cyclic element, the mood seems a little too consistent at times. Following a subtle page of introduction, almost reminiscent of Franck's sonata in A, the melodies immediately show their brilliance and mastery. The piano is by far the more active of the two instruments and it would seem that in order to keep the two in balance another Rachmaninov is needed. For this reason the sonata is often criticised, the piano being far too overpowering, confirming its prior position in the order of instruments in the work's title. Despite Brandukovs close association with the composer both professionally and personally, it must be said that the cello writing in the sonata is rather unenterprising, limited to its role of singing in its soulful lyricism almost throughout. The piano on the other hand is certainly laid out on a grand scale.

The lyrical warmth of the sonata has won it a place in the cellist's repertoire, especially of Russian music, where, except for the sonatas of Rubinstein, it has no antecedents. Since its completion the work has enjoyed the majority of the few performances of Rachmaninov's sonatas, both in public and on recording.

The work of Rachmaninov contains three important influences that were constantly at work in his music, these being - the piano, Nineteenth Century Romanticism, and Russia. The melodically rich sonata for piano and cello is no exception to the rule, representing his powers of creativity at their peak. By this time, although only 28 years old, he was a fully formed composer, and his style underwent no significant change during the rest of his creative life.

Written in the latter half of the year 1901, the sonata was first performed in Moscow on the 2 December of that year, by the composer and cellist Anatole Brandukov, to whom the work is dedicated. The manuscript includes two dates. 20 November, appearing just before the vivace coda to the last movement, and the other, 12 December, at the end of the work. As the premiere was between the two, and as the manuscript has many corrections, it would seem that Rachmaninov put the finishing touches to the work after the experience of performing it, including the addition of the final triumphant coda, which to some, is considered a lapse of taste.

Rachmaninov's approach to music was, of course, through his own instrument, the piano. The greatness of his playing demonstrates his remarkable powers of mind, heart and muscle, concentrating upon making the music sound noble and beautiful. His musical thinking was pianistic, his technique based on Chopin and Liszt. Even in the Rachmaninov orchestral sound, one can perceive the influence of the piano.

Rachmaninov's lack of awareness of the cello's capabilities somehow stops the sonata being a work of greater beauty. As it is, it is very much a work for piano and cello, your attention being constantly distracted from the combined force by the brilliant and excellently written piano part. It becomes obvious that he mistrusted the cello, allowing it very rarely to say anything that is not underlined very heavily by the piano within any phrase, and the general impression, contrary as it may be to the composer's intentions, is that the work was conceived mainly for the piano. The work itself emphasises this feeling with its rich, leaping chord passages, in clear or dazzling showers of triplets and semi-quavers, in a honeyed cantabile that pulls the heart strings. As in the Second Piano Concerto he manages to combine virtuosity with deep inner expression.

Hand in hand with the traditions of the piano go the traditions of Romanticism. Rachmaninov was one of the last big composers who carried the 19th century into the 20th, as in this sonata, his forms are Romantic - large and expansive enough to allow exhaustive exploration of the emotional states that are the subject of his music. He lets his forms grow as large as the need is in order to contain his thought. He will not be hurried, for most of the profound and tragic beauty of his music is in the time in which it takes to unfold.

What is strangely profound and tragic in this music has come to be known as a typically Russian quality. Yet Rachmaninov's nationalism was not of the objective, self-conscious kind we associate with the music of "The Five". There is nothing in the cello sonata (and very little elsewhere) that can be said to describe Russia. A comparison can be drawn with the music of Tchaikovsky: it sounds most Russian when the subject is not Russia at all but the composer himself.

The most characteristic mood of Rachmaninov's music is that of a melancholic lyricism that grows into an almost unbearable passionate expression. In the Piano and Cello Sonata Op.19, the slow Andante movement and the second subjects of the first and final movements are in this mood. The work had almost a complete, inescapable hold on him, as though it were a physical part of him. It was like a tie that held him close to his native land, which he left in 1917 and never saw again.

Richard Ward-Roden Cello Teacher (Cambridge)

About The Author

I am a professional cellist with over 30 years experience as a performer, teacher and mentor. I am based near Ely in Cambridgeshire. I am passionate about teaching and thrive on the successes of my students.

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