Friday 12 June 2020

Hee-Young Lim: the young Korean cellist in Prokofiev & Rachmaninov cello sonatas on Sony Classical

Rachmaninov & Prokofiev Cello Sonatas; Hee-Young Lee, Nathalia Milstein; SONY CLASSICAL
Rachmaninov & Prokofiev Cello Sonatas; Hee-Young Lim, Nathalia Milstein; SONY CLASSICAL

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 June 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Elegant line, and expressive classicism to the fore in these two Russian cello sonatas

On this new disc from Sony Classical, the young Korean cellist Hee-Young Lim plays a pair of Russian cello sonatas, by Rachmaninov and by Prokofiev, accompanied by pianist Nathalia Milstein. The two sonatas form an interesting pairing, two thirds of a trilogy of Russian sonatas by three great 20th century Russian composers. The third, of course, being Shostakovich, and fascinatingly all three composers only wrote one cello sonata.

Through the sonatas we can detect a fascinating web of influence by major Russian cellists. The threads go back to the 19th century when Hector Berlioz visited Russia and conducted Beethoven's Symphony No. Five, in the audience was a nine-year old Anatoly Brandukov, who would study with the great German cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. It was Fitzenhagen who premiered Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococco Theme (in his own arrangement of the work) as well as playing in the first performances of Tchaikovsky's quartets and piano trio. Brandukov's first solo concert was sponsored by composer and pianist Nikolay Rubinstein, a close friend of Tchaikovsky and younger brother of Anton Rubinstein, who founded the St Petersburg Conservatory; Brandukov would go on to play Anton Rubinstein's two cello sonatas. Tchaikovsky admired Brandukov's playing and in 1887 sent Brandukov a copy of his Pezzo Capriccioso for cello and orchestra, Brandukov played it but in his own arrangement!

Brandukov helped the 19-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov give his first independent concert, by playing some new works, and Brandukov would be the best man at Rachmaninov’s wedding.

In 1897 Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 was premiered in St Petersburg with Alexander Glazunov conducting; the performance was terrible and the result plunged the composer into depression, completely unable to compose. It was only with the help of neurologist (and amateur cellist) Nikolai Dahl, that Rachmaninov recovered. The first fruits of his creative re-birth in 1901 were the Second Suite for Two Pianos, the Second Symphony and the Cello Sonata. This latter was written for Brandukov, who premiered it with the composer; Rachmaninov was a distinguished and gifted pianist and perhaps this is one of the reasons that in the Cello Sonata he treats the two instruments as complete equals with the piano never playing a mere accompanying role.

One of Brandukov's pupils was cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who was a good friend of composer Dmitri Shostakovich and Shostkovich's Cello Sonata was written in for Kubatsky and the composer to perform on recital tours alongside the sonatas by Rachmaninov, and by Grieg. One of Shostakovich's pupils at Moscow Conservatory was a young cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich who came from a musical family with a renowned cellist father (Leopold Vitoldovich Rostropovich was a pupil of Pablo Casals). Rostropovich would go on to premiere both of Shostakovich's cello concertos.

At the revolution, Rachmaninov would leave Russia never to return; an act which had a significant effect on his compositional style and his musical output. Prokofiev (nearly 20 years Rachmaninov's junior) would leave in 1917 but returned in 1936. Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich (15 years Prokofiev's junior) would struggle with the regime's repressive attitudes to advanced musical styles.
In 1947, Prokofiev heard the 20-year-old Rostropovich perform Prokofiev's neglected Cello Concerto; Prokofiev was impressed and promised to re-write the work for Rostropovich (it would become the Symphony-Concerto, op.125 which Rostropovich premiered in 1950).  But in the meantime, Prokofiev had heard Rostropovich playing the Cello Sonata by Nikolai Myaskovsky (a friend from Prokofiev's days at St Petersburg Conservatory) and was impressed enough to write a Cello Sonata for the young man in 1949. It was the beginning of a profitable relationship, as Rostropovich inspired the production of the Symphony-Concerto as well as two further works which were unfinished at Prokofiev's death in 1953.

Prokofiev's Cello Sonata came at a time when the Soviet Regime was attacking composers for formalism, and in his memoirs the pianist Sviatoslav Richter (who premiered the work with Rostropovich) recalled how they had had to give two private performances of the sonata to the Composer's Union so that a decision could be made as to whether the work was acceptable or 'hostile to the spirit of the people'.

Hee-Young Lim has an elegantly expressive tone, and her opening to the Rachmaninov sonata is full of yearning with a finely sung line. During the movement's main Allegro moderato the drama of the music is underscored by Lim's singing line; both she and Milstein rightly bring a feeling of classicism to Rachmaninov's music (the composer's own recorded performances of his music have a clarity to them a world away from the 'heart on sleeve' approach). Throughout the movement, the elegance of Lim's singing line was to the fore. The second movement is darker, with a vivid sense of anxiety; here we sense Rachmaninov asserting almost the primacy of the piano in some moments, and in the trio sections we can hear musical links to Rachmaninov's contemporaneous piano concerto. The profoundly romantic slow movement features a long piano introduction, before the cello is allowed to take over the melody, full of the composer's typical aching longing, here sensitively played with poetic clarity and classicism. The vigorous finale breaks the mood, but there are plenty of delicate moments and sections of poetic longing before we get to the rather splashy coda which the composer added to the work after the first performance.

Prokofiev's Cello Sonata starts with the cello alone, dark toned yet still singing. Prokofiev's piano writing is quite spare at times, but the cello is used imaginatively and the multi-section first movement is full of changes of texture (including striking pizzicato sections). Yet throughout Lim and Milstein bring out the work's lyricism, and we sense Lim revelling in the moments requiring low dark tone. In the middle movement were are more neo-classical territory, with some times spiky results, and there are hints of Prokofiev's ballets. Yet again, there is a restlessness about the movement and, as with the opening movement, textures constantly changed. In the finale, the way Lim brings in the cello line at the beginning is wonderfully insouciant, with a rather 'as I was saying' sort of quality which launches a movement which is again dramatic and varied, and both performers bring out the sense of restlessness which characterises the whole sonata.

The disc finishes with a bon bouche, Rachmaninov's Vocalise; originally written as part of his 12 Romances, Op. 34 the work has very much taken on a life of its own and it showcases the elegant singing quality to Lim's playing admirably, along with Milstein's sensitive accompaniment.

There are recordings of Rostropovich playing the Prokofiev sonata, and everyone will have their favourite cellist in Rachmaninov's sonata. But this disc brings a nice sense of sensitivity and elegance to the works, and both performers bring out the underlying classicism of both sonatas.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 19 (1901)
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) - Cello Sonata in C Op. 119 (1949)
Sergei Rachmaninov - Vocalise Op.34, No.14
Hee-Young Lim (cello)
Nathalia Milstein (piano)
Recorded 28-29 October 2018, Leibnitz Saal, Hannover, Germany

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