Having lived with these piano sonatas for some time before
preparing this review, I can say that, in my opinion, these three works
are of very considerable stature … even greatness. They are perhaps the
most significant additions to the repertoire in the second half of the
20th Century. So there, I’ve said it. The only problem is I
don’t think I like them … and why? Because they constantly challenge the
listener. They are never or rarely easy listening. They are never easy
playing. Even when not technically difficult they are emotionally charged
or they demand a particular touch or sensitive pedalling. Sometimes, as
with the opening of the 1st Sonata, they are so delicate that
they are almost too sensitive to speak. Sometimes, as with the great climax
of the 2nd Sonata, they are so violent and loud as to appear
to be out of control with anger.
Another typical Schnittke mannerism is the charming
and delightfully tuneful way he may begin a movement. Examples include
the second movement of the 2nd sonata or the first movement of the 3rd
sonata. Listen too to the little melody which begins the 2nd
movement of the 1st sonata, and then watch and listen whilst
the melody is destroyed systematically and wastes away into a black
The 1st sonata, in four movements, lasts
over thirty minutes and makes considerable demands on the listener.
The 2nd is in three movements and lasts less than twenty
minutes. It makes many technical demands on the pianist. The 3rd
sonata in four movements makes heavy demands on everyone but seems to
me, in its concentrated span of just fifteen minutes, to be the finest
of the three works; that is not to decry the first two. Each is dedicated
to a different pianist. The dedicatee of the second is the composer’s
The booklet notes by Ewa Burzawa, which are translated
from the German, are quite excellent. I could have quoted great chunks
from them in this review. Any music lover would grasp their meaning
and learn much in the process. There is an introduction to Schnittke
himself then some helpful and not too technical advice as to the way
it is best to listen to these complex works. There is no doubt that
these notes open the door of understanding of some of the technicalities.
This is necessary if the music is to be more deeply grasped. How true
it is that Schnittke "upheld the classical forms which always predominated
in Russian or Soviet music – even if only in variant form or as an allusion
to them". I think she might even be referring to the 3rd
Sonata’s second movement where, one might suggest, the Allegro marking
is a reference to a classical Scherzo movement. That is certainly the
way it seems to me.
I cannot speak too highly of pianist Ragna Schirmer.
Curiously enough, though not inappropriately, she is something of a
Bach specialist. She has adapted the necessary precision and anti-Romantic
touch perfectly to Schnittke. I have never heard anyone else play these
pieces, and other interpretations would throw some fascinating insight
onto the myriad possibilities inherent in these scores. Nevertheless
Schirmer is superb, not always helped by the rather brittle recorded
sound of the top register which Schnittke regularly demands.
There is a consistency of language in these pieces
and a distillation of sonata writing technique in the five or so years
which cover their composition. They have integrity. Ultimately, future
generations may well come to regard them as benchmarks in the piano
literature of the late 20th Century.