Something for Thursday: Rachmaninoff at 150

The last major piece of chamber music Rachmaninoff wrote was the Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, and what a work it is. I’ve only discovered it in the last few months, but it’s been slowly creeping toward my personal pantheon of Rachmaninoff’s works. It’s a piece that’s been having me wonder just why I’ve generally avoided chamber music to the degree I have in my life.

Rachmaninoff wrote the piece for a cellist friend of his, Anatoliy Brandukov. Brandukov was one of the finest cellists in Russia, if not the finest, and as such he moved in the same musical circles into which Rachmaninoff was born and from which he learned. Rachmaninoff actually dedicated his Cello Sonata to Brandukov, who also served as the best man at Rachmaninoff’s wedding. As Rachmaninoff himself played the piano when Brandukov premiered the work, it can be understood why the piano part is so wickedly hard: Rachmaninoff never spared the pianist in any keyboard work her wrote, and once again the two voices are so interdependent–the piece’s main themes are often introduced by the piano before being embellished by the cello–that the work is truly best thought of as a Sonata for Cello and Piano, and not merely a Cello Sonata.

This particular performance is a particularly fine one; at times the intensity is almost white-hot. Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello) and his sister Isati (piano) turn in a blazing performance here. It’s extraordinary. In a work like this, to be successful the musicians have to achieve a kind of synchronicity that is often elusive. Here they have it from the first bar to the last. I can’t recommend this particular performance highly enough.

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