After his early enthusiasm for the outrageous avant-garde in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Shostakovich began to feel the need to move towards a greater clarity and simplicity in his music. One of the first fruits of this new mood was his Cello Sonata, written for his friend the cellist Viktor Kubatsky. He and Kubatsky used to tour a good deal together as recital partners. Their concerts often made a feature of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata, and Shostakovich seems to have felt the need to compose a new large-scale recital-work that would counterbalance the late romanticism of that work with a sense of neo-classical lightness and elegance.
The result is one of Shostakovich’s most graceful and melodically memorable pieces, showing a masterly command of the chamber-music idiom and an ability to write music that makes sense entirely in and of itself, in contrast to the more obviously theatrically-driven compositions that had formed the bulk of his output over the previous 5 or 6 years.
Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata is nowadays considered by cellists to be one of the key works of 20th century cello music and it is rarely absent from the concert platform. The first two and the last of its four movements are fast-moving, and the solitary and expressive slow movement is placed third.
Note by Gerard McBurney