Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata is a relatively early work, written in 1934 before his first denunciation by Stalin. His worries at the time were simpler and more intimate: two years into his marriage to Nina Varzar, in the summer of 1934, he fell in love with a 20-year-old student named Yelena Konstantinovskaya. Though he and Nina had an open marriage, this was outside the bounds of their agreement. They divorced, but soon remarried after learning she was pregnant with their first child. “Remaining in Leningrad. Nina pregnant. Remarried,” he telegrammed a friend. In a more reflective letter, he confessed, “I have only now realized and fathomed what a remarkable woman she is.”
During their brief divorce, he wrote the Cello Sonata to fulfill a request from Viktor Kubatsky, the principal cellist of the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich began work on the piece in August 1934, and premiered it with Kubatsky on December 25.
Shostakovich felt that Soviet composers neglected chamber music in favor of orchestral music, and the Cello Sonata was partly an effort to counter that tendency. Stylistically, it is a bit of an outlier for Shostakovich: classical in form, more subdued than much of his early output, but still without the harrowing atmosphere of his later style. Critics divide on whether his affair and divorce are reflected in the piece: some think his passionate romance with Konstantinovskaya shines through, others are surprised he could write such whimsical, lyrical music at such a fraught moment in his life.
The first movement is in sonata form, modeled on older Romantic music and atypical of Shostakovich. Still, there are surprises: tempos grind to a halt at dramatic transitions, and in the end the original theme is transformed into a dirge. The second movement is a raucous scherzo, making extensive use of glissando harmonics (here as a coloristic effect, quite unlike Gubaidulina’s later use as metaphor). The slow movement is dusky and resonant, with an endlessly unfurling cello line that grows more and more discomforted: if Shostakovich grieves for his marriage in this piece, it would be here. The brisk finale is filled with dense counterpoint which is repeatedly brought back to a rather rigid dance theme.
Later in life, Shostakovich accompanied his new favored cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, in a recording of the Sonata. (Rostropovich, who premiered both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos, was still a child when the Sonata was written.) In another recording from 1962, Rostropovich plays it with their mutual friend, the composer Benjamin Britten, at the piano.