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Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata is one of the very finest productions of his late career, a chamber work of unbending grandeur and seriousness and on a huge and muscular scale. Written in the autumn of 1968 for the occasion of the 60th birthday of the composer’s friend the great violin virtuoso David Oistrakh, and in the wake of the Second Violin Concerto he had written for the same artist in the previous year, the sonata embodies Shostakovich’s love for Oistrakh’s phenomenal artistry, for the sweetness and tragic intensity of Oistrakh’s singing tone and for his tremendous abilities to make the music pound and throb with dance-rhythms.
At the time when he composed this sonata, the composer was becoming fascinated with the idea of the 12-note row. Although he was never a serial composer, he was lured by the harmonic and motivic discipline that 12-note music suggested and this sonata abounds in 12-note ideas which give the music a dark, sinewy and ascetic feel. The other great influence on this music is Bach. So the substantial first movement continually suggests the world of Bach’s great fugues from the ‘48’ and the St Matthew Passion. It also rings with the strange chiming of funeral bells. The second and central movement, by contrast, takes us into a quite different enthusiasm of Shostakovich’s: ‘klezmer’ or Jewish wedding music. This allegretto suggests a terrifying dance in which aggression and intense sympathy are held in a dangerously unstable balance until the movement hammers towards a tragic climax. The long finale, a mighty set of variations in the form of a passacaglia, again returns us to the world of Bach, with much fugal part-writing, echoes of the haunting cadences of chorales and clear hints that Shostakovich had in mind as a model the most famous of all Bach’s works for violin, the mighty Chaconne from his 3rd solo Partita. In the very closing bars Shostakovich brings us back once more to the funeral bells from the first movement.
Note by Gerard McBurney