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Introducing: The Cello Sonata by Richard Strauss as a model of fine structure

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A new recording of the opera Der Rosenkavalier arrived a few days ago, which reminded me of the fine work of expressing emotion and depicting changing colours and textures Richard Strauss showed in even his music for solo instruments, like the Op. 6 Cello Sonata in F Major.

This is beautiful, late-Romantic music that reveals more and more as one looks below the surface — yet it doesn’t demand any work to connect with if all you feel like doing is listening passively.

The piece comes in classical three-movement form of fast, slow, fast (marked Allegro con brio, Andante ma non troppo, and Finale: Allegro vivo). The first movement is pure classical sonata, where a theme is laid out, then manipulated, before being neatly brought back in the end — except that Strauss makes it a bit more complicated, creating a sort of two-level between two themes and then the cello and piano.

The second movement is a gorgeous serenade that alternates between being despondent and dirge-like and rising above it with delicate wistfulness.

The finale is, again following classical forms, a romp (a scherzo), leaving all the slow movement’s gloom behind immediately.

It is a gorgeous, substantial piece of music — all the more remarkable for a teenaged composer (Strauss finished it in 1883, the year he turned 19). It’s performed a lot by advanced music students, but there aren’t that many opportunities to hear the piece done live by professional musicians.

Here are two native Montrealers, cellist Sophie Rolland and pianist Marc-André Hamelin, playing the piece with flair in an ASV album they recorded 18 years ago:

John Terauds

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