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Jaan RÄÄTS (b. 1932)
Complete Piano Sonatas - Volume 1
Piano Sonata No. 9, Op. 76 (1985, rev. 2014) (8:34)
Piano Sonata No. 10, Op. 114 (2000, rev. 2014) (6:08)
Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 11, No. 1 (1959) (11:13)
Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 11, No. 2 (1959) (11:16)
Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 11, No. 3 (1959) (6:48)
Piano Sonata No. 4, Op. 36, “Quasi Beatles” (1969) (7:27)
Nicolas Horvath (piano)
rec. 2016, Studio Paris-Forêt, Achèrese-le-Forêt, France
GRAND PIANO GP765 [51:29]

I had not heard any of the music of Jaan Rääts before this disc, which I now understand is my loss. Here are six attention-grabbing piano sonatas by a contemporary master from Estonia who should be better known.

Ranging between six and eleven minutes long, the sonatas are small in scale and rather meticulously crafted, yet they feel much larger in terms of ambition and impact. Rääts’ musical language is high-energy, with sharp, sometimes syncopated, rhythms and occasional blues intervals. His fondness for repeated chords suggests a touch of minimalism, although the music is rugged rather than smooth.

Pianist Nicolas Horvath begins with a pair of sonatas which Rääts revised in 2014. No. 9 opens dramatically, and follows an emotional trajectory across three movements of assertion, followed by introspection, revolved by a somewhat tempered affirmation. No. 10 also conveys a sense of connection to tradition, yet using unconventional means to show it. This sonata sounds more improvisatory, although that is likely an illusion created by the composer, skillfully abetted by Horvath.
The three earlier sonatas of Opus 11 utilize more jazzy touches, which must have been remarkable in 1959 in Soviet Estonia. Sonata No. 1 opens with a spikey prelude and no chords at all. The grave is calm and rather static, while the final allegro comes close to boogie-woogie frenzy. Sonata No. 2 follows a similar arc, with outer movements showing bad-boy instincts, while a chorale surprises with its patient and sustained power. Rääts’ juxtaposition of radically conflicting musical sides reminds one of Poulenc. It is fun to listen for musical influences and analogies in Rääts’ constantly engaging and highly original music. The third of the Opus 11 sonatas closes with a final movement of the sort of stubborn persistence you sometimes find in Hindemith. The boogie-woogie theme seems so relentless as to be not quite human, perhaps a mechanical construction by Conlon Nancarrow, until it gives way to quiet calming chords.

The “Quasi Beatles” Sonata No. 4, from 1969, contains hints of the Beatles, but no actual quotations. I missed many of the pop references, but Jed Distler’s fine notes offer help for the terminally egg-headed. This sonata features some of the flashiest playing on the disc.
Nicolas Horvath is an energetic and sensitive performer, who plays as if these short sonatas are masterpieces, and perhaps they are. The artist’s conviction certainly helps carry the listener along. Horvath has previously recorded Glass and Satie, two other distinctive voices.

The sound quality is fine. The piano rattles and clangs a bit, but never more than fits Rääts’ exuberant music. I look forward to volume 2.

Richard Kraus

Previous review: Rob Barnett


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