About this work
The story goes that in 1967 Shostakovich presented David Oistrakh with a 60th birthday present, the Violin Concerto No. 2. But the composer was premature by a year, and felt obligated to write another composition for the violinist's actual 60th birthday. The work he produced was this 1968 Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 134, one of his finer late efforts.
The piece opens with an allusion to serial music: the piano presents a theme in octaves starting in the bass and rising to the upper register, playing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale before the violin enters. The tempo is Andante. The mood is grim, as is typical of the composer's late works, especially the last several quartets. A second theme appears, march-like and cynical. The two instruments exchange renditions of it, and then the main theme is reprised by the violin. Shortly thereafter another engaging idea is presented by the violin, seeming to glide eerily downward from its upper ranges, while the piano delivers chilling harmonies in both registers. There is also some ghostly sul ponticello playing in the latter pages. Not long after this work appeared, Soviet musicologists tried in vain to explain the mood of this bleak music as pastoral.
The second movement, marked Allegretto, begins with a heroic-sounding theme. But the mood quickly turns anxious, as if the composer were expressing his irony under some considerable pressure. A waltz seems to promise relief from the unbounded energy and tension, but does not manage to break the rigid mood.
The finale, marked Largo, begins with a somber introduction. Then the violin, played pizzicato, presents the dark main theme, after which come 13 variations. The piano's first rendition of the melody calls to mind the late compositions of Liszt. The music shifts moods, going from pensive to playful, from sinister to simple. An outburst on the piano just past the middle of the movement leads to a climactic episode on the violin. The eerie music from the first movement returns, as does the march-like theme, and the work ends chillingly.
A typical performance of this sonata lasts about a half hour. Oistrakh premiered it on January 8, 1969, in a private performance before the Union of Soviet Composers. The pianist on that occasion was composer Moisei Weinberg. Sviatoslav Richter played the piano part with Oistrakh in May of that year for the first public performance.