> Alfred Schnittke - Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 [HC]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934 – 1998)
Piano Sonata No.1 (1987)
Piano Sonata No.2 (1990)
Piano Sonata No.3 (1992)
Ragna Schirmer (piano)
Recorded: Halle Saale Freylinghausen, August 2000
BERLIN CLASSICS 0017292BC [66:20]


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By the time he completed his First Piano Sonata, Schnittke had considerably modified his stylistic approach in that the polystylism that informed many of his earlier works, had been cast off, or – at least – drastically mastered, so that many of Schnittke’s later works have a greater stylistic coherence. The music of the First Piano Sonata is dark and introvert. The sonata was actually composed after the First Cello Concerto and just before the intense, almost Mahlerian Fifth Symphony. The music, in turn tense, dramatic, sometimes ironic (as in the second movement), is serious, conveying some intense, personal emotions.

The Second Piano Sonata, dedicated to the composer’s wife, Irina Katayeva, who gave the first performance in 1991, begins almost innocently with a tender, romantic theme that progressively gains in intensity until it reaches an abruptly cut-short climax after which the music disintegrates into some unfathomable abyss. The slow movement is a Sarabande in the form of a chorale and variations. The mostly quick and nervous Finale restates the second movement’s chorale which becomes brutally distorted as the music unfolds. It is torn to pieces. Loud chords follow. The chorale tries to re-assert itself, but in vain. The sonata ends in utter silence.

The Third Piano Sonata is the most substantial of the three. It is in four movements: hesitant, isolated sounds slowly try to find their way towards a restrained chorale that finally emerges before receding into silence. There follows a hectic Scherzo with insistent rhythms punctuated by clusters. The slow movement is a sorrowful, dark-hued rêverie with some impassioned, short-lived outbursts, that unfolds in simple counterpoint. The long Finale brings all main ideas from the preceding movements into harsh conflict, ruthlessly interrupted by angry clusters. The music here never really achieves any sort of reconciliation but bluntly suffocates. No real Finale here.

Schnittke’s piano output is fairly limited, and the three piano sonatas are his most substantial piano works as well as some of his finest pieces. They share many common features with their orchestral contemporaries, and clearly reflect the composer’s deepest emotions and feelings at the time of writing. The music is often bleak, austere though with some irony (the Third Piano Sonata may well be the bleakest of the three); and Schnittke’s religious pre-occupations are also reflected in the chorales that keep appearing in these otherwise pessimistic works.

This release is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one so far bringing Schnittke’s piano sonatas together. They make a very coherent whole as such, both in terms of emotional content as well of musical language. They all three are deeply serious works of substance that repay closer examination and repeated hearings, especially in such fine readings as those by Ragna Schirmer, which I find completely convincing. Recommended.

Hubert Culot

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