Sounds of Defiance
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Sonata no.1 for Violin and Piano (1963) [17:14]
Joseph ACHRON (1886-1943)
Hebrew Melody, op.33 [6:03]
Hebrew Lullaby, op.35, no.2 [3:13]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, op.134 [33:08]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)
Spiegel im Spiegel [8:40]
Yevgeni Kutik (violin), Timothy Bozarth (piano)
rec. WGBH Studios, Boston, USA, 26-28 May 2011
MARQUIS MAR 81429 [68:18]
If a series were made that continued the theme of sounds of defiance it could run and run. Dozens and dozens of composers could be featured and not just from the former Soviet Union. The idea brings to mind Decca’s excellent Entartete Musik line. There were also various releases of Czech music composed by those murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust including Schulhoff, Ullmann, Klein, Krasa and Haas. Chamber music is the perfect vehicle to express defiance as well as the pain that so often goes hand in hand with it.
The works here are well chosen examples which make for an extremely satisfying disc that fulfils the remit absolutely. For me it was an opportunity to re-evaluate the music of Schnittke which I don’t know much of and was always a little timid about, believing I’d find it too contemporary for my liking. However, one’s tastes change and develop and music I used to find difficult I no longer do.
The Schnittke Violin Sonata No. 1 is certainly worth exploring for those wanting to get a taste of this fascinating composer. Born to a German-Jewish father and Christian Volga-German mother, Schnittke was born in Engels in the Volga-German autonomous republic in 1934. His father had emigrated to the USSR in 1927. One would have thought that having chosen the USSR over Germany Schnittke’s father would have established an impeccable “street cred” that would have reflected upon his son. However, in the eyes of Stalin and his associates, the mix of German, Jewish and Volga-German Christian was too potent a one to allow him to work without the State microscope being directing at his every composition. The label of ‘formalism’ was applied and all these factors, together with a lack of any attempt on his behalf to write overtly ‘socialist-realist’ music - apart from any such evidence that may be discerned in his over 70 film scores - all but condemned him to the expected fate of non-recognition. This spelt difficulty in having his works published or performed and a general undervaluing of his compositions when they weren’t banned altogether. All of this eventually forced him to leave the USSR in 1990. The Sonata no.1 for Violin and Piano (1963) is in Schnittke’s usual spare, pared down style. It comprises four fairly short movements that, to quote violinist Yevgeni Kutik who penned the excellent accompanying notes, plead “... for maximum attention with unwavering expressivity. It explores qualities that are gritty, dissonant and perhaps even ugly”. As Kutik explains, Schnittke’s upbringing with its plurality of culture and religion resulted in his establishing a style all of his own which he called ‘polystylism’. This layers these various influences on top of each other, and as Kutik says “This becomes particularly evident in his Sonata No.1 ...” with jazz and rock ’n’ roll influences coexisting alongside “baroque counterpoint and passacaglia. 12 tone melodic lines coexist with unashamed tonality”. The result is a rich and wholly satisfying work that, to quote Kutik once more, allowed a pushing aside of “the iron curtain that smothered so many to let moments of resilient beauty shine in.” The final movement marked allegro scherzando is saturated with the jazz-rock influences and makes for a really enjoyable conclusion to a fascinating work.
I’d not come across the name of Joseph Achron before so it was a pleasure to hear these two short works of his. Born into a deeply religious Jewish family in the small Lithuanian town of Lodzdzieje (now Lazdijai) in 1886 he studied composition with Anatoly Liadov and violin with Leopold Auer. Hebrew Melody, op.33 became his best known work which is a shame as much more interesting-sounding music remains to be discovered, including violin concertos (review). On The Milken Archive website a possible explanation is given for his name not being better known: “Achron’s music stood, as it were, between two poles, the specifically Jewish public and the general musical audiences; and it could not be wholly accepted by either.” Fortunately there are organisations pushing to ensure his name becomes better known and one such managed to have his Violin Concerto No. 3 performed in May 2011 for the first time in seventy years. Perhaps record companies could take the hint and release some. If they are searching for lesser-known repertoire that’s really worth hearing let them look no further. These two small pieces are achingly beautiful whichever of the two above-mentioned poles you might be identified with.
Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata Op. 134 was written in 1968 towards the end of his life. It is yet another of his towering achievements of which there were so many. Dedicated to David Oistrakh it was written to celebrate the violinist’s sixtieth birthday. This was partly to make amends for having written the second violin concerto for the same reason but, having confused Oistrakh’s dates and presenting it to him a year early by mistake. The sonata is bleak but brilliantly scored and is of great beauty nevertheless and hugely rewarding for the listener. The first movement is slow and stark and sets the scene for what is to come. The second is decidedly faster, more furious and energetic with a biting harshness as it explores its opening theme. Identifying himself, as he so often did, with the Jews of Russia who suffered under the regime just as he did, he incorporated Klezmer-inspired themes into this movement with frantic dance rhythms. It is a fast ride for its seven minute duration leaving the listener breathless in admiration. It would be hard to imagine anyone whose heart-rate is not increased while it plays. The opening of the third and final movement is a kind of relief with its slower pace though the pain is still all too obvious. At fifteen minutes long it is a whole world of emotions that demands the listener’s full attention without which they will neither understand it nor be prepared for it ending like a wisp of smoke in the atmosphere.
Arvo Pärt, being the only composer I’ve had the pleasure of talking to, I’m always interested in hearing his musical utterances, all of which I really relate to. This piece is no exception. Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in the mirror) is a perfect example of the style of composing that he developed. He called it tintinnabuli and based it on bell-like sounds and on the idea that a single note can be beautiful if beautifully played. It is against this background, created by the piano using a really simple and repeated set of very few notes, that the violin then weaves a most hauntingly gorgeous tune. This creates a deep sense of calm which is so welcome after the thoroughly emotionally draining experience of the Shostakovich sonata. It is among the most peaceful pieces of music I know and beats any other so-called “mood music”.
All the works here are brilliantly played by two thoroughly committed musicians. They have together produced a disc of lasting value that sheds light on works that are heard far too infrequently.
Steve Arloff
A disc of lasting value that sheds light on works that are heard far too infrequently.