With admirable fairness Shostakovich composed one sonata each for the three principal string instruments: violin, viola, and cello. The Cello Sonata is an early work, the Viola Sonata a very late work, in fact his last, while the Violin Sonata is a product of his later years, when his productive friendships with the two great Soviet virtuosos, Rostropovich and Oistrakh, produced two cello concertos and two violin concertos, and, in the case of Oistrakh, this violin sonata as well.
The Second Violin Concerto, composed in 1967, was intended as a 60th birthday present for Oistrakh, but since the composer was too early by one year, he wrote the Violin Sonata the following year to correct his mistake. It falls between the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth symphonies, and betrays some of the desolation and angst that marked his music in his later years. The clearest features of this style are the writing for the piano in plain octaves, without harmony, and the dogged pursuit of abstract forms.
The last movement, for example, is a set of variations (though not so named) on a theme set out with commendable clarity by the violin playing pizzicato alone for eleven bars. The piano answers in its lowest register, and bit by bit more complex textures are introduced while the pulse remains fixed. The eighth variation is, surprisingly, a plain statement of the theme by piano and pizzicato violin one beat behind. This time the variations build in energy, with a powerful solo for the piano and a matching solo for the violin immediately after. The movement still has a way to go before settling into the last page, laden with reminiscences of the first two movements.
Those first two movements are less elaborate, and the almost-twelve-tone theme that the piano gives out at the beginning does not preclude some lighter passages later in the movement; the second movement begins innocently but soon slips into the style of high-energy burlesque that always makes us wonder if this is a merry Shostakovich or the mockery of a man weighed down by life’s tribulations.