Born at Oneg (an estate near Novgorod), April 1, 1873
Died in Beverly Hills, March 28, 1943
Rachmaninoff contributed little to the chamber music repertoire, but his Cello Sonata remains one of most important of its kind, and frequently turns up on cello recitals. Like those of Beethoven, which were the first of their kind by an important composer, Rachmaninoff’s is the first major cello sonata by a Russian composer to remain in the standard repertoire.
This sonata was written in the summer of 1901, immediately after the Second Piano Concerto. The concerto was the work that broke the long spell of artistic paralysis and profound melancholia brought on by the utter failure of the composer’s First Symphony. The optimism, self-assurance and exuberance that mark this concerto are found in the Cello Sonata as well. At 35 minutes, it is one of the most expansive and broadly conceived sonatas ever written for the instrument, almost symphonic in its scope and richly textured writing. It was dedicated to the composer’s friend, the cellist Anatoly Brandukov, who gave the premiere in Moscow on December 2, 1901 with Rachmaninoff at the piano.
Rachmaninoff claimed that the work was “not for cello with piano accompaniment, but for two instruments in equal balance.” Nevertheless, the dense piano writing at times threatens to overwhelm the cello. As a single indication of the measure of importance the piano assumes in this work, it is only necessary to point out that the first movement’s development section focuses entirely on the piano, with the cello clearly in a subordinate role, and the cadenza leading into the recapitulation is for piano.
The sonata opens with a dark-hued slow introduction built mainly from a two-note melodic cell. The allegro section is ushered in with a long-breathed, yearning theme for the cello. The piano introduces the second theme, in D major, this one more relaxed and songful than the first. The importance of the slow introduction’s two-note cell is heard throughout the development section, where it is played almost constantly by one or both of the instruments.
The second movement is laid out in the standard Scherzo and Trio format (ABA-C-ABA). The two instruments share the Scherzo’s rhythmically urgent and restless opening theme in C minor, but it is the cello that claims the impassioned second theme as well as that of the central Trio section. This is idiomatic cello writing at its best – lyrical, deeply soulful, soaring melodies written in the instrument’s most sonorous range.
The sonata’s finest movement is undoubtedly its Andante, a seamless arc of lyrical outpouring, midnight poetry and glowing rapture. The quintessential Rachmaninoff is heard in this musical dialogue, which rises twice to an intense climax and then subsides to close in quiet repose.
The high-spirited Finale features one of Rachmaninoff’s most inspired melodies. Its second theme, announced by the cello, fairly exudes lyric warmth, sensuous beauty and nobility of purpose.
Program note by Robert Markow
Proclaimed “a phenomenon” by the Los Angeles Times and “one of the best pianists of his generation” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stewart Goodyear is an accomplished concert pianist, improviser, and composer. He has performed with, and has been commissioned by, many of the major orchestras and chamber music organizations around the world.
Last year, Orchid Classics released Goodyear’s recording of his suite for piano and orchestra, Callaloo, and his piano sonata. His recent commissions include a piano quintet for the Penderecki String Quartet, and a piano work for the Honens Piano Competition.
Stewart Goodyear’s discography includes the complete sonatas and piano concertos of Beethoven, as well as concertos by Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Rachmaninoff; an album of Ravel piano works; and an album entitled For Glenn Gould, which combines repertoire from Gould’s U.S. and Montreal debuts. Goodyear’s recording of his own transcription of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (complete ballet), was chosen by The New York Times as one of the best classical music recordings of 2015. His discography is released on the Marquis Classics, Orchid Classics, Bright Shiny Things, Steinway and Sons, and Naxos labels.
Last summer included performances with the Chineke! Orchestra at Southbank Centre (U.K.) and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, the Grant Park Music Festival, and the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. He also performed with Chineke! at the NAC in March 2023. Highlights of the 2023–2024 season are his recital debut at Wigmore Hall, his debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, his return with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and his Carnegie Hall debut with Toronto’s Royal Conservatory Orchestra under Peter Oundjian.