Troika: Cello Sonatas by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov performed by Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Prokofiev,Rachmaninov,Shostakovich
LABELS: PentaTone
ALBUM TITLE: Shostakovich • Prokofiev • Rachmaninov
WORKS: Shostakovich: Cello Sonata; Waltz No. 2; Prokofiev: Cello Sonata; Troika; Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata; Romance, Op. 34/14; plus arrangements of ‘Kukushka’, ‘Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away’, and ‘Back in the USSR’
PERFORMER: Matt Haimovitz (cello), Christopher O’Riley (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 608 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Should you be in any doubt as to the message here, the booklet opens with a double-page spread of Vladimir Putin snogging Donald Trump. Not an illicit photograph, but a bold piece of Lithuanian graffitti. Its musical equivalent is Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away, based on an orthodox chorale, whose brutal distortion is achieved here with ‘a styrofoam cup smashed behind the bridge’, and a glass slide plucking the strings to articulate its spooky impertinence. 

Matt Haimovitz explains that he began with the ‘troika’ of great Russian cello sonatas, before the theme of subversion and resistance suggested itself, and ‘before the maelstrom of Russian interference’ in the 2016 US election hit the headlines. The late Viktor Tsoi’s Kukushka (which asks ‘Where are you now, freedom of will?’) already makes a poignant anthem, while Christopher O’Riley’s barnstorming version of The Beatles’ song ‘Back in the USSR’ is another reminder of how far we haven’t travelled. 

So much for the extras, which include a delightful rendition of Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2. In the sonatas, Haimovitz’s approach is vibrato-saturated, lacking the agility demonstrated by some of his contemporaries, sweet but rather heavily perfumed. The Rachmaninov Sonata in G minor suffers here from a slack scherzoand some strangely congested, woozy playing in the Allegro finale. Christopher O’Riley’s pianism is assured, even if the voicing isn’t a match, say, for pianist Stephen Hough in his Hyperion recording with cellist Steven Isserlis. 

Shostakovich’s Sonata is leaner and more focused, though some of the passagework is ragged. Haimovitz has a well-fed sonority for Prokofiev’s grandiose essay. The Moderato has a stealthy wit, but doesn’t quite snap and crackle as it should, though the finale goes off like a rocket.

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Helen Wallace