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Russian Classics

"From the top, one is as impressed by the transparent, in-depth sonics of the recording as by the virtuosity and artistry of this superb duo."  --Tucson Citizen

Sergei Rachmaninov
Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 (1901)

Dmitri Shostakovich
Sonata in d minor, Op. 40 (1934)

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata in C major, Op. 119 (1949)


Wu Han (piano),  David Finckel (cello)


Listen to AudioNotes:


Notes on the Music:

by Gerard McBurney

You can't grasp Russia with the mind,
You cannot measure it in feet and inches.
Its special character is this:
That Russia has to be believed in.
- Fyodor Tyutchev 1866

Russian classical music, like American classical music, appeared less than two centuries ago. That, compared with the time that separates us from Bach, Monteverdi, Palestrina and Machaut, seems almost yesterday.

It was only in the late 1820s, after the Napoleonic wars and around the time that Beethoven and Schubert died, that Glinka, the first great Russian composer, invented what we now think of as the "sound of Russian music". But although that Russian sound is relatively new, it is a sound most music-lovers recognize and feel to be old. And it has echoed ever since through the works of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky right on to the masters and mistresses of our own day like Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina.

What makes Russian music sound the way it does? Why do we recognize it easily and why do we let it so enchant us (as the sleepy Sultan let himself be enchanted by the fabulous Sheherazade)?

For many people it is the art of Russian melody that makes the difference. But Russian melodies can be many things. There are famous Russian tunes, like those in Pictures from an Exhibition or Peter and the Wolf, that sound like Russian village folk-songs, especially those with falling fourths that Glinka called "the soul of Russian music". But there are others just as 'Russian', like the big tunes from Eugene Onegin, the Pathétique Symphony or Swan Lake, which you never could call folk-songs. And on the other hand those oh-so-Russian-feeling melodies in The Rite of Spring and Les Nocesturn out not to be Russian at all, but to come from Lithuania and Georgia respectively, two ancient nations with their own distinctive musical traditions.

The Russianness of some great Russian tunes, like the haunting opening of Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto, seems to lie in the way they evoke the darkly scented world of Russian Orthodox church-chanting. But this too can be deceptive. The celebrated modern Russian Orthodox music of Arvo Pärt is written by a Lutheran-born Estonian and the words are mostly from the Catholic liturgy. And, in sharp contrast, some of the most powerful tunes of Shostakovich, a Russian-speaking Slav of Polish extraction, are based on klezmer, which is Jewish wedding-music.

Then there are those famous booming Russian harmonies… those clangorous bells from Boris Godunov and The Great Gate of Kiev, or the thrilling opening chords of Rachmaninov's 2nd Piano Concerto. We all think we know where those come from. The famous bell-casting scene from Tarkovsky's film Andrei Rublyov, a vision of the Slavic Middle Ages, comes to mind. But what about Rachmaninov's doom-laden choral symphony The Bells? Those bells swing from the words of Edgar Allan Poe, hardly a Russian writer! And that famous tinkling Sugar-Plum Fairy… why does she sound so Russian?

Some scholars have tried to be more general. What makes Russian music Russian, they say, is its sense of space. Think of that vast and mighty land, a fifth or sixth of the world's land-surface, those steppes, and deserts, ancient taiga forests and endless arctic wastes of tundra. And it seems Russians like long works of art, such as the novels of Tolstoy, the operas of Mussorgsky and the films of Eisenstein. But, all the same, some of the most Russian-sounding pieces ever written are the tiniest songs of Glinka and Rachmaninov, minute epiphanies of private feeling, sometimes to the words of Russia's greatest poet Pushkin. And, anyway, does not the music of Brahms and Wagner and Mahler also convey as grand a sense of space?

Others point to the colored glories of the Russian orchestra, to

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples…

of Sheherazade, Firebird and the rest. But one of the greatest Russian orchestral show-stoppers is Pictures from an Exhibition, really a set of piano pieces. Its wonderfully "Russian" orchestral colors were painted on later by Ravel, a Frenchman. And what about the piano miniatures of Scriabin, the string quartets of Shostakovich? In different ways those pieces are studies in etching, streaked with shades of gray and sometimes almost colorless.

Yet still we sense the Russianness of all this music and as we listen it seems clear to us. But as it fades away, so often we are no wiser as to what makes it sound this way. We think we know what Russian music is, but time and time again it will surprise us. And the secret element of Russianness, the magical ingredient that draws us back, seems, like the will-o'-the-wisp, to dance and flicker in the music but always to stay just beyond our grasp.

Several of the 19th century Russian composers had a strong sense of what it was they needed that would make their music Russian. And one idea, popular in different ways with Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, was to make their music tell a story. That meant operas and ballets and melodramatic fantasies and tone-poems and fairy-stories. What it did not mean was 'abstract' chamber-music, like 'boring' Westerners were writing. They thought real Russians shouldn't write violin sonatas, for example! Once, when Borodin wrote a string quartet, his friend Mussorgsky, outraged at the betrayal, wrote a furious letter. And when Tchaikovsky started his quartets, they caused a sensation, for they were something unexpected and quite new.

But soon things changed. The next generations of Russian composers were a different kind of animal. They were conservatory-trained stars from childhood, not romantic outsiders. They were professional performers, and nearly all great pianists of one kind or another. This was the time, from the late 19th century onwards, of the mighty Russian schools of piano, violin, cello and the voice… of giants like Rachmaninov, Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Chaliapin.

The three cello sonatas on this recording were written by great, albeit very different, composer-pianists. They wrote the piano parts out of their own experience of playing the piano and, in two cases, for themselves to play. They wrote the cello parts for great cellists who were their friends and colleagues. And they wrote this music not to be played in the drawing-room, not as after-dinner entertainment, not as a local demonstration of their Russianness, but as fully-fledged public music to be toured from one city to the next and published and performed in concert-halls both great and small, where people would pay to hear this music and the miracle of how great cellists and pianists played it.

Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Prokofiev did not need to use this music to prove their Russianness. The music sounded Russian simply because the composers were Russian. In these 20th century works, modern Russian chamber music stands up and walks by itself, confident of what it is and wants to say, unafraid and no way needing to prove itself against an older, different way of making music.

by Gerard McBurney

Sergei Rachmaninov
Sonata for Piano and Cello in g minor, Op. 19

Born April 1, 1873, Semyonova
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Composed: In the fall and early winter of 1901, for the cellist Anatoly Brandukov. Towards the end of the last movement, Rachmaninov wrote the date "November 20th". At the very end he wrote "December 12th", showing that he revised the ending immediately after the first performance. Rachmaninov was 28 years old.

First performance: In Moscow, December 2nd 1901, by Anatoly Brandukov, with the composer at the piano.

Other works from immediately before: Piano Concerto No.2, Op.18; Suite No.2 for two pianos, Op.17.
Other works from immediately after: Spring, a cantata for bass, chorus and orchestra, Op.20; 12 Songs for voice and piano, Op.21.

The composer and the music: In the wake of the successful completion of his Second Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov spent the summer of 1901 on the family's country estate Ivanovka in the Tambov region, several days' travel to the south of Moscow.

To judge by his letters, it was only after he returned to Moscow in late September that he began to work on the sonata, the performance of which was already planned. By mid-November he was crying off social engagements, complaining that "my work's going badly, and there's not much time left. I'm depressed…" On November 30th however he sent a message to the composer Taneyev inviting him to a rehearsal at 11.30 that morning. By the following January 15th he was hard at work on the final proofs of the piece: 'I've found almost no mistakes'.

In later years Rachmaninov remembered his cello sonata as one of a series of pieces through which, with the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, after a long period of depression and inability to create, he was born again as a composer: 'I felt that Dr. Dahl's treatment had strengthened my nervous system to a miraculous degree… The joy of creating lasted the next two years, and I wrote a number of large and small pieces including the Sonata for Cello…'

Dmitri Shostakovich
Sonata for Cello and Piano in d minor, Op. 40

Born: September 25, 1906 St. Petersburg
Died: August 9, 1975 Moscow

Composed: Begun in mid-August 1934 in Moscow. On August 17th the composer noted that the first movement was nearly finished. The third movement was completed on September 13th, and the last movement on September 19th in Leningrad. The sonata was written for cellist Viktor Kubatsky, former principal cellist of the Bolshoi Theater, Moscow, and organizer of the Stradivarius Quartet. Shostakovich and Kubatsky toured as a duo, performing not only Shostakovich's sonata but also the sonatas of Rachmaninov and Grieg. Shostakovich reportedly performed all the piano parts from memory. The composer was 27 years old.

First performance: In Leningrad, December 25, 1934, by Viktor Kubatsky and Shostakovich.

Other works from immediately before: Piano Concerto No.1, Op.35; Jazz Suite No.1.

Other works from immediately after: The Tale of the Priest and His Servant Balda, Op.36 (cartoon opera for children based on Pushkin); The Limpid Stream, Op.39 (ballet); Symphony No.4, Op.43.

The composer and the music:In public interviews at this time Shostakovich spoke of his need to 'struggle for a simple language' and he invoked Maxim Gor'ky's phrase about a need for a "purity of language". At the same time, his private letters suggest a connection with emotional experiences at this time.

Although already married, in June the composer had fallen in love with a young translator, Elena Konstantinovskaya. He and his wife Nina took a long seaside holiday in the South during which time he wrote continually to Elena. Stopping in Moscow on their way home to Leningrad, in mid-August, Nina decided she had had enough and pushed for a separation. She continued on to Leningrad, leaving Shostakovich behind in Moscow. It was at this time that he began the cello sonata.

Soon after the first performance of the cello sonata, Shostakovich asked his wife for a divorce. By later 1935 however Nina was expecting their first child, Galina, and the couple were re-united.

Sergei Prokofiev
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C major, Op. 119

Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow

Composed: In 1949, for Mstislav Rostropovich. Prokofiev was 58 years old.

First performances: Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and pianist Sviatoslav Richter gave a private performance in the House of the Union of Composers, Moscow, on December 6, 1949. This was followed by the first public performance, by the same artists, in the Small Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, on March 1, 1950.

Other works from immediately before: Piano Sonata No.9, Op.103; Ivan the
Terrible, Op.116 (film score); A Winter Bonfire, Op.122 (music for children).

Other works from immediately after: Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra,
Op.125; Symphony No.7, Op.131.

The composer and the music: Prokofiev is said to have placed an epigraph over the first page of the sonata, a quotation from Maxim Gor'ky: "Mankind - that has a proud sound".

By the time he wrote this music Prokofiev was seriously ill and no longer able to play the piano. He spent most of his time confined to his apartment in the middle of Moscow or in his country house in the peaceful tree-filled village of Nikolina Gora, an hour's drive from the city. It was in these two homes that he worked on the sonata.

Prokofiev was too weak to attend the first public performance of the piece in March 1950. Sviatoslav Richter commented later on Prokofiev's appearance at that time: 'It was hard to believe: a man who had always created such energy was now a helpless creature."

About Gerard McBurney

Gerard McBurney was born and brought up in Cambridge, England. He was a student at the Moscow Conservatory, after which he moved to London where he now lives, dividing his time between composing, orchestrating, broadcasting, translating, teaching and writing about music, cooking, talking on the telephone and learning to look after his young daughters.

Gerard McBurney and David Finckel first met and worked together in September 1999, on The Noise of Time, a theatrical presentation by London's Theatre de Complicité. Centered around the life and music of Shostakovich, the production included the Emerson Quartet as performers and was directed by Gerard's brother and company artistic director Simon McBurney.