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Written for his friend and 'best man', Rachmaninov's Cello Sonata turned out to be his last chamber work.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Sergei Rachmaninov was still going through the serious crisis of confidence which had been triggered by the disastrous 1897 premiere of his Symphony No.1. The composer was unable to write almost anything in the following three years, until he began a course of hypnotherapy which eventually helped him overcome his block.
Among the first major works to emerge after his recovery was the Cello Sonata in G minor Opus 19, completed in November 1901. Unfortunately for this piece, Rachmaninov had only premiered his mighty second Piano Concerto the month before, and that work’s huge success eclipsed the less ambitious, but undoubtedly musically related, chamber piece that followed soon afterwards.
Rachmaninov dedicated the sonata to the eminent Russian cellist Anatoliy Brandukov, who gave the first performance in Moscow with the composer himself playing the terrifyingly difficult piano part. Some 14 years older than the composer, Brandukov and Rachmaninov were nevertheless great friends. The cellist was Rachmaninov’s best man at his wedding and the two of them gave numerous concerts together.
Brandukov had previously premiered many cello pieces by Tchaikovsky who was a profound admirer of his playing. It had a refined expressive quality and Rachmaninov’s writing clearly played to his cellist’s strengths. Because he believed both the cello and piano had equal roles to play in this work, Rachmaninoff was not inclined to call the piece a cello sonata. Most of the themes are introduced by the piano, before being embellished and expanded by the cello. Because of this, it is often referred to as the Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano.
In four movements, and like the evergreen Piano Concertos, the sonata is filled with the character so typical of Russia’s Romantic era. Few composers before Rachmaninov could have so deeply explored the cello’s capacity for expressive tenderness and intensity. And there can be no doubt Brandukov’s playing really brought every nuance and feeling out of the page.
When he wrote this marvellous sonata, Rachmaninov surely could not have known that this would be his last chamber music work. From that time on, however, he would only dedicate his skills to solo piano pieces, and the larger scale orchestral and choral pieces. So this is a piece to be discovered and treasured as representing both a beginning and an end to a phase of Rachmaninov’s career - and a testimony to a fine musical friendship.