Johannes Brahms’ Cello and Piano Sonata No 2 was written at the request of cellist Robert Hausmann. The composer worked on his new opus in the summer of 1886 in the small Swiss town of Thun. In the autumn he “reaped the harvest” – in Vienna he performed what he had written over the course of the summer. On 24 November the sonata was performed (using the actual manuscript) at the Kleine Saal of Vienna’s Musikverein. The cello part was performed by Hausmann and the piano by the composer.
The first movement of the sonata amazes us with its wise economy, the secret of which Brahms had discovered later in life. It is based on a motif of two sounds from which, as if from a seed, both themes – the principal and the secondary – sprout forth. The second movement is possibly the highly enigmatic Adagio affettuoso that Brahms had dropped from his First Cello Sonata twenty years earlier and now revived from inexistence. At the start of the final Allegro molto Brahms unexpectedly moves his attention to the pianist, giving the piano an almost orchestral structure. The initial theme of the finale is closely linked to the principal theme of the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony, only here the music is more modest in terms of scale and is not devoid of humorous streaks.
Robert Schumann made use of the name Fantasiestücke four times. First came his famous piano cycle, later followed by pieces for piano for four hands, a trio for piano, violin and cello and, finally, three Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, in which the part of the clarinet could be replaced by the violin or cello, depending on the wishes of the performers.
Schumann used the word “Fantasie” meaning not “the fantastic” but rather “fantasy” so admired by the romantics, creating something new and brilliantly combining various elements. It is true that in 1849, when these three lyric pieces were written, Schumann had already drifted away from romanticism to the more comfortable Biedermeier style in the spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. The proposal to replace the clarinet with the violin or cello indicates that the piece was meant, first and foremost, for amateur musicians.
The Fantasiestücke have no programme titles, and Schumann merely indicated the tempo and the character: “Tenderly and expressively”, “Lively and slowly” and “With passion, con fuoco”.
In 1891 Sergei Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire as a pianist and, one year later, as a composer, receiving the Grand Gold Medal and three extra points in addition to the five awarded by Tchaikovsky himself. On 30 January 1892 he presented his own first concert in Moscow, thus beginning his collaboration with Anatoly Brandukov, who was later to become the first performer of the cello sonata and one of the performers at the premiere of Trio élégiaque No 1. Brandukov was fourteen years older than Rachmaninoff and had already made a name for himself in Paris. He took part in the young composer’s concert, performing, together with the composer, Two Pieces, Op. 2 – Prelude and Eastern Dance.
The pieces were completed on 20 July 1891 in Ivanovka, Tambovsk Province. The Prelude was initially meant for piano. Its origins may be seen in the structure of the accompaniment, though the cantilena melody seems to have been born for the cello. The delightful Eastern Dance, in which there is more of the “Hungarian” than the “Eastern”, became one of the most famous works written by Rachmaninoff as a student.
The only Sonata for Cello and Piano by Shostakovich was commenced on 14 August and completed on 19 September 1934. This year saw the premiere of the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in three cities – Leningrad, Moscow and Bratislava. At the same time, in art Shostakovich took a sharp turn away from musical theatres, stating in The Red Newspaper “I have had a great breakthrough in chamber music and music for the concert stage…”
Composers were being demanded to provide greater simplicity and accessibility, and Shostakovich sought simplicity without “simplification” and clarity without the necessary “euphony”. The cello sonata is considered to be one of his most romantic works, probably thanks to the beautiful secondary theme in the first section and the scherzo after Anton Bruckner. The romantic surges, however, do not bring with them a whirlwind of notes, and miserliness and circumspection predominate. The uneasy pizzicato at the end of the first section hint that the hero of the sonata is on its guard and far from jumping into this sea of emotions.
The sonata is dedicated to Viktor Lvovich Kubatsky, who edited the cello part and on 25 December 1934 first performed the sonata together with the composer at the Small Hall of the Leningrad Philharmonic.