1934 was a busy time for 28 year old Dmitri Shostakovich. Frequently touring around Russia as a highly regarded pianist, and achieving success both at home and abroad with his early symphonic works, all was set up for a promising career.
This all changed in 1936, when Stalin and his entourage were in the audience for a performance of Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. The Soviet ruler was so shocked by both the music and the plot that he left the performance early, and two days later had an article published in an influential newspaper damning the opera and it's composer.
Although written around the same time, being a piece of chamber music meant that his Cello Sonata was not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as the more visible operas and symphonic works. The piece was written following a suggestion from cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who was principal cellist in the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Said to be very good at organising concerts, his cello playing left a certain amount to be desired, and the piece failed to make a significant impression on the audience following its premiere on Christmas Day 1934 with the composer at the keys.
In typical Shostakovichian fashion, the piece careens from one emotional extreme to the next, from lyrical, aggressive, despondent and finally to playful and comical. This piece has recovered from its shaky conception to be one of the finest 20th Century pieces in the cello repertoire.