Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Complete Violin Sonatas
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 (1963) [17:01]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 Quasi una Sonata (1968/1987) [22:37]
Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 (1994) [14:51]
Sonata 1955 for Violin and Piano [14:51]
Carolyn Huebl (violin); Mark Wait (piano)
rec.1-4 June and 25-26 September, 2009, Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA. DDD
NAXOS 8.570978 [69:20]

Schnittke's intensity, focus and inward-directed heat are ideally suited to chamber music. Concentration, minimal consonance, the timbres of individual instruments together with their textures when sounded harmonically create a fertile world. There the wry and self-confident Russian melodies that Schnittke introduces, almost behind your back, can grow, strengthen and affect you.

Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait, both from Vanderbilt University, Nashville, here present all three of the composer's numbered sonatas for violin and piano along with the earliest one from 1955. They have the characteristics of great reflection, tightness, economy, though of a restrained and bare lyricism; of variety and a mix of moods from the sombre to the almost jaunty and jazzily lighthearted (the fourth movement of No. 1 [tr.4], for example). Indeed, together with the pair's extreme technical yet unobtrusive virtuosity, this faculty of being at home in all Schnittke's many idioms is one of this excellent CD's strongest points.

Equally remarkable is the extent to which Huebl throws herself into the essence of Schnittke's string writing. Almost all of his violin sonata writing was directly inspired by the work - and hence the style - of Mark Lubotsky and Gidon Kremer with their acerbic and understated tautness. To Wait's unretiring yet sensitive pianism, Huebl brings an equally demonstrative certainty. She never over-layers Schnittke's sonorities; they are designed to be as spare in sound as his themes are meant to prick rather than caress.

The Sonata No. 1 dates from 1963; it was in the following year that Lubotsky gave the première. It makes use of serial techniques and is generally springily experimental. Significant among its characteristics - and equally well brought out by these two fine soloists - is the relationship between piano and violin: prompting, antagonising, supporting, echoing and so on. Huebl and Wait explore these seamlessly and add to the momentum of the sonata greatly by respecting Schnittke's conception of the duality of these two instruments.

Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 Quasi una Sonata was written just five years later, in 1968. The longest single work on the CD at nearly 23 minutes, it's one of the composer's best well-known and most often performed pieces with much more angularity - anger even - than the others here. Yet, again, Huebl and Wait have rightly preferred to accentuate the music's essence over its surface. There are the glissandi, mordent harmonics and wistful rhythmic ambiguities - all characteristic of Schnittke. We also hear the gestures that may or may not be quotations - they're certainly evocative - and the dissonant intervals and repetitive chords - famously those for piano toward the end of the piece. The players here are full of life, not labour: very pleasing performances. They evoke the emotion, they don't 'demonstrate' it.

Lubotsky's and Schnittke's collaboration was renewed with the Third Sonata, which dates from thirty years later. It’s more spare and darker still. The two players here also capture Schnittke's austerity though again without overplaying it. Schnittke - paradoxically - more implies than exposes such sparseness with regard to thematic development and instrumental sound. In keeping with what we know of Schnittke's health at this time - his two strokes in the 1980s were of major concern - there is little real joy or exuberance for all the music's insistence and confidence. Both Huebl and Wait, though the former in particular, have an expert and effective tread when conveying something balanced finely between resignation and regret. This can be heard in the halting fourth movement, for example [tr. 9]. This is tellingly marked as senza tempo, which literally means that there is no tempo marking; but also suggests time running out.

The Sonata 1955 for Violin and Piano also lasts just under 15 minutes but is from a different world, written forty years earlier. In places it could be by one of the English pastororalists of that generation. There is even a passage sounding like a Scottish jig near the start. The challenge for Huebl and Wait was not to treat it as an immature or incomplete piece. They succeed very well. Each aspect of musical interest - instrumental articulations, rhythmic particularities, cross-references - is given its due weight. This is Schnittke, but not the one we first think of; perhaps that's why it's placed at the end of the recital.

There is a handful of recordings of these four works individually. But none in the current catalogue which nicely groups all three as this one does. That alone makes it a good choice. The acoustic is clean and close. The notes with the booklet are illuminating. All in all a sympathetic, revealing and enduring set of performances that can only enhance Schnittke's reputation. Don't hesitate.

Mark Sealey

Nowhere else are all of Schnittke's violin sonatas available on the same CD. It's hard to imagine more idiomatic, lively, sensitive and generally persuasive performances.