The history of the cello sonata resembles that of the cello concerto, with relatively few sonatas in the first half of the 19th c., but a great flowering in the later 19th and 20th c. - see my post about the best cello concertos.
In my list of favorite cello works I have included not only sonatas for cello and piano (or basso continuo in the 18th c.), but also sonatas and suites for cello solo.
Here is my list of favorite cello sonatas:
1. Johann Sebastian Bach, Suite No. 5 for Unaccompanied Cello [1717-23]
The Six suites for unaccompanied cello by Bach display an amazing wealth of color, character, and technical and compositional brilliance. Not surprisingly, they are the most frequently performed solo compositions for the violoncello. They were most likely composed during the period 1717–1723, when Bach served as a Kapellmeister in Köthen. In all suites an opening prelude is followed by the four standard suite movements, allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. Bach in addition inserts a pair of fashionable dances before the final gigue: a pair of gavottes, minuets or a bourree. In the 5th suite (like the 6th) Bach is trying to extend the possibilities of the cello. He entitled it "Suite discordable," and instructed that the A string be tuned down to G. The prelude in the 5th suite is a French overture with a grand imposing introduction exploring the deep range of the cello and quasi fugal middle section. This suite is above all famous for its intimate Sarabande, which is rare in that doesn't contain any chords. It is like an intimate prayer and has been called "the essence of Bach's genius," or "an extension of silence." The Courante and Gigue of this suite are in the French style, rather than the Italian form as in the other five suites. Before the Gigue, we have a pair of Gavottes. There is beautiful video of this suite called "Struggle for Hope" (on Sony) where Yo-yo Ma sits playing, while the Japanese onnagata Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo dances around him in elaborate drag costume on a candle-lit stage.
Recording listened to: Bach, 6 Suites a Violoncello solo senza Basso, with Anner Bylsma, Baroque cello, on SEON (RCA). Authentic instrument and playing style.
Vivaldi wrote at least nine cello sonatas. Six of these were published as a set in 1740. From a structural point of view Vivaldi's cello sonatas are conventional, adopting the form of the Sonata da chiesa (four movements in slow/fast/slow/fast configuration). The sonatas do, however, bear the stamp of Vivaldi's genius, in the spontaneity of the inspiration, and in the exceptionally light texture. They of course also carry Vivaldi's hallmark, the obsessive repetition of simple rhythmic and melodic cells. That Vivaldi fully appreciated the lyrical quality of the cello is especially clear from the 5th sonata of the set, which I have singled out here. As Christophe Coin, the cellist, says in the CD booklet: "In the second largo of the E minor sonata, the hypnotic rhythm of the bass propels the piece along like the oar of a gondola whilst above it unfolds a moving serenade." The second movement of this sonata provides interesting contrasts between solo and tutti, as in Vivaldi's concertos.
Recording listened to: Vivaldi, 6 Cello Sonatas, with Christophe Coin, cello and Christopher Hogwood, harpsichord, on L'Oiseau Lyre. Authentic instruments and playing style.
3. Luigi Boccherini, Sonata for Violoncello and Basso continuo in E-flat major, G. 10. [pub. 1771]
Boccherini was a prolific composer for the cello, his own instrument - he composed over 30 sonatas for cello and basso continuo. They require a high degree of technical skill and may have been written for his own use during his Italian concert tours. In Boccherini's works (also the concertos, quintets etc.) the cello possesses an almost magical tone. The versatile instrument assumes the role of alto and sometimes even soprano, but can also be melancholy, or witty, or extremely virtuoso. The cello sonatas are in three movements: fast, slow and one in a moderate tempo. The sonata in E-flat major starts off with a fast movement characterized by strongly accented rhythms. After a tender adagio, a gentle menuetto provides closure. This sonata was part of a set of six published in London in 1771; in the late 19th c. it was edited by the cellist Piatti, who changed the order of the movements (putting the adagio first) and added a keyboard accompaniment. Skip this bowdlerized version and try to listen to the authentic work!
Recording listened to: Boccherini, Cello Sonatas - Fugues for 2 Cellos, with Anner Bylsma, cello, on Vivarte (Sony). Authentic instruments and playing style.
4. Beethoven, Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, Op. 69 
Among the five cello sonatas that Beethoven wrote, this is the most expressive piece, in the typical self-confident style of the composer of the first decade of the 1800s. It was written in 1808 and dedicated to Beethoven's friend and amateur cellist Baron Ignaz von Gleichenstein. The A major key creates a beautiful lyrical world. The first movement opens almost stealthily, like the Fourth Piano Concerto - the cello entering softly and unaccompanied. The second movement is a typical Beethoven scherzo, with a waltz-like trio. A brief Adagio leads soon into the sunny Allegro Vivace dominated by the first subject announced by the cello.
Recording listened to: Beethoven, Cello Sonatas opp. 69, 102; Variations on Mozart's "Bei Mannern," with Anthony Pleeth, cello and Melvyn Tan, fortepiano, on Hyperion. Authentic instruments and playing style.
5. Mendelssohn, Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 in D major, Op. 58 
A passionate, even exultant work written in 1843. The sonata is in four movements. The torrents of arpeggios in the piano in the first Allegro assai vivace sometimes almost overwhelm the singing lines of the cello. After a lighthearted Allegretto scherzando with the cello playing plucked notes follows the heart of the sonata, an Adagio that mirrors Mendelssohn's fascination with the music of Bach - it consists of a chorale played by the piano in rich arpeggios, and alternated with passionate recitative-like passages in the cello. The final brilliant Molto allegro e vivace mirrors the splendidly cheerful mood of the beginning of the sonata. It has something of the incidental music for the "Midsummer Night's Dream," which Mendelssohn wrote in the same year.
Recording listened to: Mendelssohn, Complete music for cello and piano, with Richard Lester, cello, and Susan Tomes, piano, on LDR
6. Carl Reinecke, Sonata No.1 in a minor for Cello and Piano, Op.42 [1847-48, pub. 1855]
Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was a German composer, conductor and pianist, who was also very important as an educator. Among his many students were Grieg, Bruch, Janacek, Albeniz, Sinding, Svendsen, Reznicek, Delius, Arthur Sullivan and George Chadwick, to name a few. He eventually rose to the position of Director of the Leipzig Conservatory and also served as the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He composed in virtually every genre, from opera to orchestral and chamber music. His flute sonata Undine is perhaps his most famous work. Reinecke wrote three cello sonatas. The first one was composed in 1848 and published in 1855; it was dedicated to a cellist from the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Andreas Grabau. The sonata became very popular and at the request of his publisher Reinecke also made a version for violin. It starts with a passionate Allegro moderato, that is enhanced by contrasts and interesting modulations. This is followed by a simple melodious slow movement with much beauty in the treatment of harmony. After the charming and rhythmically appealing Intermezzo, the work concludes with a vigorous and noble finale, full of swing and life.
Recording listened to: Claudius Herrmann, cello, and Saiko Sasaki, on CPO (containing all three cello sonatas by Reinecke).
7. Charles-Valentin Alkan, Sonata de concert for Cello and Piano in E major, Op. 47 
Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813 – 1888) was an eccentric French composer and pianist. At the height of his fame in the 1830s and 1840s he was together with Chopin and Liszt one of the leading virtuoso pianists in Paris. But from 1848 he began to adopt a reclusive lifestyle, concentrating on his compositions. Alkan's music, that was almost exclusively for the piano, possesses complex musical textures and is notoriously difficult to play. That is also true for the ambitious Sonate de concert for cello and piano, which, in its juxtaposition of the sublime and the trivial is said to anticipate Mahler. The four movements feature progressive tonality, each ascending by a major third. The opening movement has great symphonic weight, the delicious Allegrettino has a sort of wayward charm (thanks to its surprising turns of harmony), the austere Adagio seems to be inspired by Jewish sacred music, and the virtuoso "alla saltarella" finale ends the work on a note of insanity.
Recording listened to: Bernhard Schwartz, cello, and Rainer Klaus, piano (from the Trio Alkan), on Naxos
8. Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger, Cello Sonata in C Major, Op.92 
Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) was born in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. He studied at the Royal Conservatory in Munich where his teacher was Franz Lachner. Rheinberger himself would eventually hold the position of Professor of Composition in the same conservatory for nearly 40 years. Although now strangely only known for his organ compositions, he wrote in all genres and was especially strong in chamber music. He wrote one cello sonata, which was dedicated to the great cellist (and cello composer) David Popper. The symphonic opening movement begins with a broad singing theme in the cello that immediately catches the attention of the listener. In the lyrical Andantino, the middle movement, a gorgeous duet between cello and piano ensues. The bouncy finale is lighthearted in nature, but "Professor of Composition Rheinberger" also manages to weave short fugues between the virtuoso episodes.
Recording listened to: Orchester-Akademie des Berliner Philharmonischen Orchesters, on Thorofon (with Piano Quartet and Horn Sonata)
9. Giuseppe Martucci, Sonata for Cello and Piano in F sharp minor, Op. 52 
Giuseppe Martucci (1856 – 1909) was an Italian composer, conductor, pianist and teacher, who worked hard at the difficult task of interesting the Italians in other music than those eternal operas - he composed two symphonies and two piano concertos as well as a large body of chamber and piano music. His cello sonata is the only one of any importance written in Italy during the 19th c. - quite a change from the 18th c. that had been so rich in cello music! Although written when he was only 24 years of age, it is a creatively rich work, laid out in four movements. While the first theme of the opening movement is marked by a nervous rhythmic cell, the long second theme is of great breadth and fully exploits the cello's possibilities. The second movement gives us an inventive and joyful scherzo. The intermezzo is a simple andante with a languid tone. The finale constitutes a brilliant rondo, full of virtuoso playing on both instruments.
Recording listened to: Andrea Nannoni, cello, and Giovanna Prestia, piano, on Fonè.
10. Robert Fuchs, Cello Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 29 
The Austrian Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) studied at the University of Vienna Conservatory, where he later became Professor of Composition - he was the teacher of Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schmidt, Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker. He lived a quiet life and did little to promote his own compositions. Fuchs wrote two cello sonatas. The first one was published in 1881 and dedicated to David Popper. Brahms recommended the sonata as follows: "Fuchs is probably the most beguiling talent here... I believe the Cello Sonata to be his best and most accomplished work." The work opens with a big Allegro Moderato that should be played very calmly as Fuchs indicated. It opens with a quiet, sustained, but modulated melody for the cello. The thematic material is of a melancholy nature and the movement is not without pathos. The second movement is a Scherzo. The rests incorporated in the first theme give it a peculiar hesitating character. The third and last movement begins with a slow richly-scored introduction, after which the final Allegro non troppo ma giocoso blasts away the clouds. It has a sprightly, dance-like first theme, which leads to a triumphant conclusion.
Recording listened to: Nancy Green, cello, and Caroline Palmer, piano, on Biddulph
11. Johannes Brahms, Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 
Brahms wrote two cello sonatas, twenty years apart from each other. But while the first sonata was based on the elusive style Beethoven used in his last two cello sonatas, this later work, a product of Brahms' middle years, is the one that exudes a strong youthful boldness (it is contemporaneous with the Fourth Symphony). The sonata has four movements and is in a symphonic mood with a heroic cast and a sonorous richness. Although it features a turbulent rhetoric, it never sacrifices a generous, easy lyricism. The problem of the instrumental balance is deftly handled. The first movement has an ardent second subject and a relatively dark development section, but youthful assurance returns in the recapitulation. The Adagio affetuoso has a noble first theme, with the cello providing a pizzicato accompaniment. The Scherzo has a stormy character. The final Rondo is light and songlike, and overall sunny.
Recording listened to: Raphael Wallfisch, cello, and Peter Wallfisch, piano, on Chandos (with Brahms' first cello sonata).
12. Sergey Rachmaninov, Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, Op. 19 
Rachmaninov's late-Romantic outpourings are very well suited to the cello, although the piano has to do the hardest work in this sonata. The composer's only cello sonata dates from the same period as his famous Piano Concerto No. 2. The score is dedicated to cellist Anatoly Brandukov. The opening Lento - Allegro moderato is windswept music, with a conflict between semitones and whole tones, bouncing up and down between anxiety and delight. The Scherzo makes one feel like a dark night full of unease, although there is relief in a contrasting central section with a cantilena for the cello. The passionate Andante features a gloriously romantic melody. But it is the finale that carries the crown of the whole sonata: there is a blazing joy here in the glorious main melody, like the triumphant feelings at the Russian Easter.
Recording listened to: Yuri Turovsky, cello and Luba Edlina, piano, on Chandos (with the 2nd Myaskovsky cello sonata)
13. Julius Engelbert Röntgen, Cello Sonata No.5 in b minor, Op.56 
The German-Dutch pianist and composer Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) studied with Carl Reinecke and Franz Lachner. He is above all remembered for his contributions to Dutch music life. In 1877 Röntgen moved to Amsterdam and taught piano there, helping to found the Amsterdam Conservatory and the subsequently world famous Concertgebouw Orchestra. After WWI he became a naturalized Dutch citizen. In 1924, after retiring from public life, he built the villa Gaudeamus in Bilthoven near Utrecht, with a circular music room that did not touch the ground, which became a meeting point for international composers and musicians. Julius Röntgen's 800 compositions include 25 symphonies, concertos (7 piano concertos, 3 violin concertos, 3 cello concertos, etc.), as well as numerous chamber, piano and vocal works. Though he wrote in most genres, chamber music was his most important area, among which we find fourteen (!) cello sonatas. His Fifth Cello Sonata dates from 1907. It opens with a grand Moderato, which is full of dramatic passion. The dark-toned Allegro con moto has elements of a scherzo and an intermezzo. Next comes a lovely slow movement, a tender Poco adagio. The final movement is called Molto passionato e vivace, but the sonata ends on a soft and lyrical note.
Recording listened to: Jean Decroos, cello, and Daniele Dechenne, piano, on Ars Produktion (the first CD of the collected cello sonatas)
14. Albéric Magnard, Cello Sonata in A Major, Op.20 
Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) was born in Paris and studied at the Paris Conservatoire, with Théodore Dubois, Jules Massenet and Vincent d'Indy. He was born into a wealthy family, so he didn't really have to work, which is perhaps the reason that his musical output numbers only 22 opus numbers. Besides symphonies, he wrote a piano trio, a string quartet and some instrumental sonatas. His style is typical of French composers of his generation: heavily influenced by Cesar Franck - but one can think of worse influences. Magnard died in 1914 defending his property against the invading Germans. The cello sonata is quite elaborate and in four movements. The first movement starts with a lyrical theme. The second movement is a short scherzo, dominated by strong rhythms of a Stravinskian savagery. The third movement, a nobly sad Funebre, follows without a pause, and is the expressive core of the sonata. The spirited finale is full of good humor and liveliness.
Recording listened to: Thomas Demenga, cello, and Christoph Keller, piano, on Accord (with Magnard's Promenades pour piano)
15. Max Reger, Suite for Solo Cello No 3 in a minor, Op. 131c 
Reger's three suites for solo cello were his final cello works - he also wrote four sonatas for cello and piano. The solo sonatas were composed in Meiningen in the autumn of 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the Great European War, and they represent an important undertaking in the spirit of the solo suites of Bach. They contain some of Reger's most lyrical and eloquent music. The Suite No. 1 ends with a fugue and the Suite No. 2 has associations with the Bach of the cello suites in the employment of dance forms like Gavotte and Gigue. The Suite No. 3 is the longest and most elaborate of the three. It contains three movements. The Präludium begins with a solemn chordal statement that is contrasted with more melodic writing. The overall movement is very expressive. The second movement is an ebullient Scherzo. The last movement, Andante con variazioni, is a crowning sequence of variations which constitutes a high-point of all writing for the solo cello.
Recording listened to: Guido Schiefen, cello, on Arte Nova (all three solo cello sonatas by Reger).
16. Zoltán Kodály, Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello in B minor, Op. 8 
The Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) wrote his sonata for solo cello in 1915. It was first performed in 1918, a delay due to the war, and published in 1921. It is filled to the brim with the Hungarian folk idiom which was the most important influence on Kodály's musical style: melodies with rhythms and pitch patterns suggestive of Hungarian children's songs and a free improvisatory melodic style. This second feature is clear in the opening melody of the present sonata. Rubato is the key here. It is a majestic movement, full of bold gestures, but ending in a melancholic coda. The central Adagio is a dark and meandering piece, leading into a desolate folksong. The finale is wild folksong medley, with the cello now playing as a bagpipe, then as a zither. The sonata ends with an extended, climactic build-up which demands the utmost from the cellist.
Recording listened to: Janos Starker, cello, on Delos
17. Frederick Delius, Cello Sonata in D Major 
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was born in England to German Parents. He studied music at the Leipzig Conservatory with Carl Reinecke. Afterwards, he settled in France, where he remained for the rest of his life, except during the WWI. Delius wrote in a languorous, lyrical style, which is also evident in his cello sonata. It dates from 1916, while he was living in England. The rhapsodic sonata is cast in one continuous movement. The themes are both wistful and imbued with a nostalgic reverie. It is expressive and heartfelt music of haunting beauty.
Recording listened to: Moray Welsh, cello, and Israela Margalit, piano, on EMI Classics (with Delius' violin sonatas)
18. Nikolai Andreyevich Roslavets, Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 
The Russian composer Nikolay Andreyevich Roslavets (1880-1944) was a modernist who was active in the Soviet Union in the 1920s - a period of artistic experimentation that lasted only briefly until the Soviet regime repressed the avant-garde. As regards style, Roslavets was inspired by Scriabin and his synesthesia. But he soon developed his own ideas, consisting of a new system of tone organization and the principle of the "synthetic chord." "Synthetic chords" are sound complexes made up of six to ten tones, central to individual works of which they define the parameters (comparable to Schoenberg's Twelve Tone method). This system had reached maturity by the time the Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 2 was written in 1922. As the booklet states, "It opens with crystal-clear piano chords like frozen teardrops." This soon develops into an introspective and meditative sound world. The lyrical moods are separated by the insertions of lucid piano chords. A very interesting sonata that deserves to be pulled out of obscurity.
Recording listened to: Alexander Ivashkin, cello, and Tatyana Lazareva, piano, on Chandos (Roslavet's complete music for cello and piano)
19. Alexander Tcherepnin, Sonata for Cello and Piano No. 1, Op. 29 
Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) was born into a cultured family in St. Petersburg where "music was religion." By age 15 Tcherepnin was already a prolific composer. After the Revolution the family moved to Georgia (where Tcherepnin was inspired by folk music) and then to Paris. Tcherepnin followed an international career as composer-pianist. In the 1930s, his tours also brought him to Japan and China (his second wife was a Chinese pianist). Tcherepnin created his own harmonic language, involving the use of synthetic scales. He wrote concertos, symphonies, ballets, and three operas. In the early 1920s, Tcherepnin produced three cello sonatas as well as the original "The Well-Tempered Cello," a set of 12 preludes on his original scale. The first sonata is typical: it is concise and brilliant, characterized by manic toccatas, scintillating ostinati, and soulful Russian melodic invention. Both instruments often play at the extreme end of their register. Also here Tcherepnin uses a personal, oriental-sounding nine-note scale. The hammering rhythms call the young Prokofiev of the same period to mind. Stunning music that has been unjustly forgotten.
Recording listened to: Alexander Ivashkin, cello, and Geoffrey Tozer, piano, on Chandos (Tcherepnin's complete music for cello and piano)
20. Dmitri Shostakovich, Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, Op. 40 
The Sonata for Cello and Piano was one of Shostakovich's early works, composed in 1934, a time at which he had been mainly busy with stage works. It was dedicated to the cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who also gave the first performance. The sonata is in four movements. The Moderato begins with a pensive if restless melody from the cello over a closely-related piano accompaniment. The general feeling is one of impending tragedy. At the end of the movement stands an unusual pianissimo "recapitulation" section which seems to be in slow motion. The Allegro is among the earliest of Shostakovich's sardonic scherzos, with the perpetual motion energy that we now think of as typical for this composer. The piano introduces the rhythmically forceful, folk-inflected main theme over a churning cello accompaniment. The Largo is a soulful romance that draws on a lineage going down to Tchaikovsky. The final Allegro is an ebullient rondo finale - with an inclination toward rather grotesque and cynical humor. The movement ends in decisive brilliance.
Recording listened to: Yuki Turovsky, cello, and Luba Edlina, piano, on Chandos (with Prokofiev's cello sonata).
21. Bohuslav Martinu, Sonata for Cello and Piano no. 3 
The Czech Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) was a prolific composer who felt at home in all genres. In 1923 he left his country for Paris, and in 1939 he emigrated to the Unites States. He wrote three cello sonatas, of which the third is the most immediately appealing. It was written at Vieux-Moulin near Paris in the autumn of 1952 during the interlude between the composer's two periods of residence in America. The sonata is dedicated to the memory of the Dutch-American cellist Hans Kindler. It is full of attractive Czech melodies. Like Martinu's two earlier cello sonatas, this final one is laid out in three movements. The first movement is a somewhat restrained Moderato with a formal introduction marked Poco andante. This is followed by an Andante. The concluding virtuoso Allegro ma non presto contains much humour and ends with a big bounce. A supremely crafted piece of music.
Recording listened to: Steven Isserlis, cello, and Peter Evans, piano, on Hyperion (with the other two Martinu cello sonatas)
22. Mieszyslaw (Moishei) Vainberg (Weinberg), Sonata for Solo Cello No. 3, Op. 106 
Vainberg's solo cello sonatas have been likened in importance to the suites of J.S. Bach. They were composed between 1960 and 1985, the odd-numbered ones dedicated to Rostropovich and the even-numbered ones to Berlinsky of the Borodin Quartet. No. 3, dating from 1971, was written in a small town, "Silver Forest Park," just outside Moscow. This lyrical solo sonata is a substantial tour de force. It starts with an allegro in classical sonata form. The first theme reminds one of Bach, the second one is march-like. Both are worked out in a virtuoso development section. The following Allegretto is a charming miniature scherzo. The Lento has a broad melodic arch and almost infinite lyrical declamatory power. The final Presto is rather understated and starts off with a sort of 20th c. ghost of Schumann. This sonata makes a good claim for granting Vainberg a position in the "Soviet composer triumvirate," besides Shostakovich and Myaskovsky.
Recording listened to: Yosif Feigelson, cello, on Olympia (with solo cello sonatas 2 and 4).
[Rostropovich and Britten]
23. Benjamin Britten, Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 Op. 87 
Britten's three Cello Suites were inspired by the personality and technique of Mstislav Rostropovich. While looking up at the great precedent of Bach, they at the same time distance themselves from it. The third suite is the most passionate of the three. The nine movements are played without a break. The suite includes a sequence of Russian folk songs and variations culminating in the Russian Hymn for the Departed, the Kontakion. The sonata, however, is not comforting but rather moves into angst-ridden regions. The Lento starts off with pizzicato death knells and the Marcia has all the paranoia of the best Shostakovich. After a mournful Canto, the Barcarolle seems to hint at some happier feelings, but breaks down into the schizophrenic Dialogo. The ensuing Fugue provides some calm, but that is short lived, as the Recitativo: Fantastico brings on the nightmares again. The Moto perpetuo is permeated with horror, the final Passacaglia is also filled with of darkness and uncertainty, until concluding with the simple glory of the Kontakion.
Recording listened to: Steven Isserlis, cello, on Virgin Classics (with The Protecting Veil by Taverner)