Six of the best pieces of Soviet chamber music

Pianist Yulia Chaplina chooses six great chamber works by Soviet composers

best pieces of Soviet chamber music

Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 80

Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata is one of his darkest and most pensive works. It took eight years to write: the first drafts appearing in 1938, but the sonata wasn’t completed until 1946.

Advertisement

As Prokofiev was writing the piece, a war was raging around him. The darkness of the setting hangs over the piece. The first movement begins in the rhythm of a funeral march, with later violin passages directed by Prokofiev to represent ‘the wind that walks through the graveyard’. The second movement is a demonic scherzo. It’s caustic and virulently ironic. The third movement is a heartfelt and typically Prokofiev-like Adagio – a symbol of purity and meekness. The finale begins triumphantly, it is full of joyous sounds, but the returning ‘graveyard passages’ from the first movement overshadow the merriment.

Given the sonata was conceived in 1938, it’s hard to judge what’s specifically being depicted in the work: the horrors of World War II or the harsh and brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union.

The first performers of the sonata were David Oistrakh and Lev Oborin. During rehearsals, Oborin played too softly in Prokofiev’s opinion and the composer insisted on a more aggressive interpretation. Oborin replied that he was afraid of drowning out the violin with thunderous chords, to which Prokofiev remarked, ‘This music should sound so that people will jump up and say ‘Have you gone mad?’.’

Pianist Yulia Chaplina will perform this piece at Kings Place on 26 May. Details here.

Find out more about Prokofiev and his works

Read our reviews of the latest Prokofiev recordings

Khachaturian: Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano

This remarkable trio is subtle, passionate and full of oriental charm. It is possibly Khachaturian‘s only chamber masterpiece as it wasn’t a style of music he generally favoured. Khachaturian manages to capture the feeling of slight sadness here – one that can only happen on a warm southern night.

He wrote it in 1932 during his studies at the Moscow Conservatory in Nikolai Myaskovsky’s composition class. By this time, the young composer’s creative portfolio already contained many completed works and he was already renowned in music circles. Although you can detect the influence of composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Debussy, Khachaturian’s unique style is recognisable right from the start.

Initially, the trio had been written for a more traditional line-up: piano, violin and cello. It was Myaskovsky who advised Khachaturian to diversify the instruments used, eliminating at least one of the string instruments to create a different sound. The clarinet was chosen, but at the time the young Khachaturian was barely familiar with the specifics of playing this instrument. He had to travel around music libraries, read reference books and even sat in the clarinet class at the Conservatory. Despite the initial challenges, this trio is a masterpiece and firmly rooted in the repertoire of many chamber ensembles.

Find out more about Khachaturian and his works

Read our reviews of the latest Khachaturian recordings

Shostakovich: Piano Quintet

The Piano Quintet is one of Shostakovich‘s greatest achievements in the field of chamber instrumental music.

The five-movement work shows the power of his intellect, the depth of his feelings, and the vivid, festive reflections of the life around him. It juxtaposes lyrical, dreamy images and more objective sketches of life.

In this work the composer utilises Baroque musical structures: the first two movements are a prelude and a fugue, and the fourth (Intermezzo) is a Passacaglia. The traditions of the early 18th century are also recalled in the ensemble’s alternating solos and tutti sections, which was typical for the genre of the early concerto.

Prokofiev wrote of this composition: ‘the fugue is, in my opinion, the best and most interesting part of the quintet… Bach wrote fugues in so many ways and the other composers have added so much of their to this genre already. It has seemed quite impossible to write a fugue that sounds new and interesting. Shostakovich should be given huge credit: his fugue is exceptionally new.’

Find out more about Shostakovich and his works

Read our reviews of the latest Shostakovich recordings here

We named Shostakovich one of the greatest composers ever

Prokofiev: Cello Sonata, Op. 119

This sonata is like a Russian fairytale. In fact, the more wild you can let your imagination go, the better.  I personally can ‘see’ or ‘hear’ almost all our Russian fairytale characters: the evil Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool, Koschei the Deathless and Vasilisa the Beautiful.

The sketches for the Cello Sonata emerged after Prokofiev heard the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich playing Myaskovsky’s Cello Sonata. Prokofiev was very inspired by this performance and conceived the idea of writing a similar work for Rostropovich. The sonata was completed in 1949, and the premiere was performed the following year by Rostropovich and Richter. Before the premiere, there were a couple of dress rehearsals with the composer and Rostropoivich recalls some amusing stories about them:

‘We started playing and I sometimes stopped to tell him [Prokofiev] that he was playing false notes. Five or six times he took it fine, but the next time he stopped me and said: Slava (short from Mstislav in Russian), did I compose this piece or did you? I play exactly what I wanted to play, even if there are false notes!’.

Pianist Yulia Chaplina will perform this piece at Pushkin House in London on 25 May. Details here.

Babajanian: Piano Trio

Babadjanian’s Trio is one of the jewels of Soviet music. Wonderful, sumptuous harmonies and flowing Rachmaninovian melodies create a beautiful musical landscape. True passion, love, drama and despair are elegantly depicted here. Babadjanian himself gave the premiere performance and recording of this trio with David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Knushevitsky.

Babadjanian was a Soviet Armenian composer, pianist and teacher. He lived and worked in Moscow and wrote both pop and academic music. Babajanian’s compositional style was influenced by the works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Khachaturian and Armenian composers Komitas and Spendirov. From the Russian and Armenian classical traditions, Babadjanian absorbed a romantic enthusiasm, overt emotionality, drama, lyrical poetry and colourfulness.

Arno was a formidable pianist too. Shostakovich wrote of him: ‘Once again it is to be regretted that he does not perform as a pianist. The world is losing an utterly outstanding performer.’ Russian pianist Emil Gilels also admitted: ‘To the great joy of pianists, devoting himself exclusively to the art of composition, he has thereby removed from the agenda of the world’s greatest pianists the ‘threat’ of competition from him.’

Weinberg: Piano Quintet

A Soviet composer of Polish-Jewish origins, Mieczysław Weinberg was one of Shostakovich’s best students, friends and followers. His music reflects the great upheavals of his era, but does so in the unique manner of his artistic self, combining an acutely characteristic musical language with precision and crystal clarity of form.

The Piano Quintet was composed during the Second World War. This quintet is an intimate work filled with contrasts. It has echoes of some of Shostakovich’s most striking chamber works from the same period (Piano Trio and Quartet No 8 in Memory of Victims of Fascism and War).

Read our reviews of the latest Weinberg recordings

Pianist Yulia Chaplina will be performing at the Prokofiev Festival from 25-26 May. 

Advertisement

Here are the best music streaming services on offer