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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Complete Piano Music
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1987) [30:23]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1991) [18:52]
Piano Sonata No. 3 (1992) [16:19]
Variations (1955) [11:11]
Prelude and Fugue (1963) [8:15]
Improvisation and Fugue (1965) [5:53]
Variations on a Chord (1965) [6:56]
Little Piano Pieces (1971) [10:04]
Homage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979) [6:49]
Five Aphorisms (1990) [13:11]
Sonatina for piano (four hands) (1994) [3:02]
Cadenzas to Mozart's Piano Concertos K39, K467, K491 and K503 (1975-90) [15:26]
Simon Smith (piano)
Richard Beauchamp (piano) John Cameron (piano) (Sonatina; Homage)
rec. 23 Jan, 4-5 Dec 2012, 18-19 Apr 2013, Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
DELPHIAN DCD34131 [76:40 + 69:40]

This release has been reviewed by Rob Barnett (see review) and I am very glad to be able to concur with his positive responses. I have always been a big admirer of Schnittke, and the piano sonatas reinforce some of the reasons for this. In a masterpiece such as the Piano Sonata No. 1, striking defiance, pain and profundity meet with the beauty of sound a fine pianist such as Simon Smith can conjure from his instrument. The half-hour duration of this work is something truly symphonic and intensely satisfying - a journey which early on takes us into desolate and even disarming simplicity, with touches which almost overlap into Erik Satie territory, but derived from an entirely different source. The third movement's glacial Lento is all remoteness and alienation from expectation, while the final Allegro is stunningly technical but a strikingly dramatic 'wow'.
 
Neither of the other two sonatas can top the first one, but each has its own fine qualities. The Sonata No. 2 has a more lyrical, almost romantic atmosphere at times, though Schnittke's restless nature never allows him to settle on anything for long. Darkly sepulchral passages suggest an underlying chorale in the second movement, though the stained glass is distorted and easily splintered. Violence is not escaped in the final Allegro moderato, though the thrills sometimes also have a cinematic 'chase' quality. Extreme contrast and a centre of disturbed beauty is also present in this finale, with music dragged with reluctance from the angels crowding Schnittke's mind.
 
The Piano Sonata No. 3 inhabits the spare sound of Schnittke's later works. This enigmatic musical environment can be harder to assimilate, but the composer's signature can be found everywhere, and if you can accept the whole in the same way as you might the late piano pieces of Liszt or the strange details in Goya's 'Black Paintings' - image divorced from its grandness of theme - then you can find yourself wandering in wonder inside a world hard to explain but easier to appreciate on its own terms.
 
CD 1 ends with the Variations, written while Schnittke was still a student in Moscow. Here, the 'signature' has yet to emerge, and the influences of Rachmaninov and other great musical ancestors are ever present both in pianist technique and compositional invention.
 
You might be lulled into thinking that CD 2 is filled with less consequential pieces, but the Prelude and Fugue is a mighty work built around serial atonality, filled with dark foreboding at the start and sparkling with remarkable, fascinating and witty developments in the fugal second section. Improvisations and Fugue is another exploration of serial techniques, both of these works showing Schnittke sailing directly against the favoured musical styles of Soviet social realism. This opens with a similar edgy rhythm and spikiness of accent found in the beginning of the previous Fugue, this second Fugue tricky to recognise as such, given its intensity and abstract but unmistakably dramatic feel. Written as a competition test piece the Improvisation and Fugue demands considerable virtuosity, and Simon Smith is well up to the task.
 
Variations on a Chord is a kind of hybrid, using serial techniques but delivering variety on identical notes - those of the 'chord' - only through rhythm, dynamics, accents, and the suggestion of melodic shape. The results are startling and intriguing: a kind of musical mathematics exercise which takes Webern all the way from Weimar to Moscow. The Little Piano Pieces are relatively simple pieces for young players, but as ever with such works, difficulties and surprises lurk all over the place, keeping us all on our toes. The superb Homage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich is in a category of its own, being for three players at one piano. Extremes of range and the ability to play lots of notes at once arise sparingly, the layering of each part often having plenty of clarity. You can have fun identifying the references, but they are also helpfully outlined in the booklet. The Five Aphorisms are also not insubstantial, intensifying some of the atmosphere of the sonatas through compression. The Sonatina for piano duet is a later piece in 'antique' style, though as ever with Schnittke the classical sonorities are merely a springboard for strange imaginings. This leads into a sequence of Cadenzas which sound stranger out of context than they would in a full performance. These are intriguing journeys into the themes of Mozart, though Simon Smith does less to make them sound Mozartean than perhaps one might have hoped.
 
There are some serious competitors in this field, but not many who offer quite the comprehensiveness of this Delphian two disc set. Boris Berman's Chandos recordings on two separate discs are amongst the leaders, but while his playing is superb I don't hear it as delivering quite the same clarity of structure and direction I've enjoyed from Smith. Berman introduces an extra layer of poetry into his interpretations which has its appeal, but gives the impression of keeping us hanging around for longer as a result, though a peek at timings in fact gives the lie to this. One thing is clear, Simon Smith can easily challenge at the highest level and to my ears gives us a sharpness of focus on these pieces which makes him a real winner.
 
Dominy Clements

Previous review: Rob Barnett  







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