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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Sonata for Piano No.1 (1988) [31:36]
Little Piano Pieces (1971) [8:45]
Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) [22:49]
Svetlana Ponomarëva (piano)
Omsk Chamber Orchestra
Yuri Nikolaevsky (conductor)
rec. 15 February 2006, CBC Studio One, Vancouver (piano solo); 9 April 2003, Omsk Organ Hall, Russia (piano concerto – live recording).
MV PRODUCTIONS SPPSCD06 [63:10]


This is an intriguing release. Svetlana Ponomarëva is a pianist whose devotion to the music of Schnittke is, on the evidence of this recording, in no doubt whatsoever. The Sonata for Piano No. 1, is Schnittke on a grand scale, but using minimal forces – at least when compared to his uncompromising approach to orchestrating with often massive or exotically colourful forces. The first Lento movement begins sparingly, making the listener lean forward and pay attention through sparing, attenuated, softly spoken musical argument. 6:30 into the movement a chorale is introduced, which entices us into believing we are actually in safer, Satie-esque realms, but with Schnittke the uneasiness and sense of danger is never far away. Svetlana Ponomarëva has written personal programme notes, and describes the Sonata as a cross, with all the symbolic associations this implies. In fact there would seem be something of a symbolism fixation going on here, with subtitles imposed onto the works as they are presented on the CD. This is not necessarily helpful, but would appear to be an attempt to relate the ‘difficult’ music on this CD with the Bach and Liszt on Ponomarëva’s previous recordings.
 
The Sonata is by no means an easy work, but the music has enough connections with 20th century tradition to make intuitive analysis relatively unproblematic. The second Allegretto movement has a kind of modal/serial tonality going on, with plenty of disorientating atonality and rhythmic and dynamic violence to justify Ponomarëva referring to it as a ‘crucifixion.’ The third movement is another desolate Lento, with a similar, sustained and searching main section, which resolves into a simple chorale, and climaxing with a rising, cluster-like chordal apotheosis. The fourth movement follows straight on, re-asserting the rhythmic drive and energy of the second. It’s not beautiful, and you probably won’t feel inclined to dance to it, but it has an undeniably compelling quality for which Ponomarëva is a skilled advocate.
 
The outer booklet photo has a charming photo of a little boy who may or may not be Andrei, Schnittke’s son - we are not told in the notes - but is certainly a reference to him as the dedicatee of the Little Piano Pieces. Each piece is a deceptively simple miniature, working largely Mikrokosmos style around the middle of the keyboard, but with plenty of dissonant surprises and being at times technically quite demanding. Schnittke’s work is almost invariably tinged with melancholy, and this is true of these works as well, giving them a poetic depth which is often missing in other works intended for children. The little laugh at the end of the last piece is a nice touch, if a little twee.
 
The piano solo works on this disc are dry, studio recordings, which are clear and well defined. There should be a Caveat Emptor however for the Piano Concerto. This is an amateur recording made by Pavel Okunev from his seat in the audience, and is in a thin, indistinct mono which has plenty of distortion and what sounds like limiting compression at peak levels, all of which emphasises the boomy acoustic of the hall and clouds any kind of detail. This is a shame as, from what I can make of it, this was a significant and powerful performance. It was the last concert conducted by Yuri Nikolaevsky, a distinguished musician with his own following, who was a champion of contemporary music and who often worked with and was a friend of Schnittke. The energy and urgency of the performance belie the elderly conductor’s frailty and ill health, and it certainly sounds as if he is getting 110% commitment from the orchestra.
 
I have nothing against presenting an historical document of this nature, but feel that the CD label should at least give a ‘Mono’ indication, so that purchasers don’t feel let down when they get the thing home and find their ears being given a hard time. So many advances in cheap portable live recording devices have been made in the last few years that I really wonder what was used to make this one. I know for certain I could have done a better job with my box-of-matches sized minidisc recorder bought over the internet for peanuts, so there is really no excuse, even in Omsk. If you are looking for Schnittke’s Piano Concerto then look elsewhere. I recommend the Chandos recording by Igor Khudolei and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Valeri Polyansky if you can find it, or the Bis recording under Lev Markiz.
 
A bit of a mixed bag then. If you are looking for the substantial and by all accounts rarely-recorded piano sonata then I can give this recording a fair recommendation, and if you are interested in Yuri Nikolaevsky then this will make an interesting souvenir of his final concert. Audiophiles wanting a decent recording of the Piano Concerto, you have been warned.
 
Dominy Clements                           
 

Comment received

Dear Dominy Clements,

As the producer of the CD "Schnittke" featuring pianist Svetlana Ponomarëva, I wished to thank you for your time and insightful June 29, 2006 review on Musicweb. Since the general press has relinquished its role of discovering talents for a safer rubberstamping of heavily promoted artists, initiatives such as Musicweb's offer an exposure opportunity to lesser known artists, some of them true musicians.

"Intriguing release"? Well we take this as a compliment since we are interested in producing CDs as musical objects reflecting our individuality: the cover photograph was taken in march 1965 with a Foca One star camera equipped with a 3.5/35 mm lens, by my father, in our kitchen 75 rue Carnot in Nogent sur Marne, a picturesque suburb of Paris where I grew up playing Zorro. We did not wish to clutter the notes but since you asked…

There is however a few more important points in your essay that warrant a reply in order to precise the perspective in which our work and your review coexist.

No there is no "symbolism fixation" here. Perhaps the reviewer would have benefited from reading the extensive interviews the composer gave to his friend and biographer, Prof. Alexander Ivashkin -available in English but read by Svetlana both in Russian and English- where his own opinions on these subjects -Evil, Good, Mankind, Spirituality to name a few- emerged to be an integral part of Schnittke's preoccupations. Since work of music are not merely notes but convey meaning, through the booklet Svetlana is offering her own "key" that unlocked these works as an insight to an artist own process, not a musicologist doctoral thesis. However given Schnittke's own cues, Svetlana's reading cannot be treated casually as it goes deeper toward understanding an organic piece of music. The same goes for the Concerto for Piano and Strings where Orthodox prayers references can be recognized in the score.

Another major interest in Schnittke's compositions -history of western music- was reflected in his musical language referred by many as polystylistic. Hence showing thematic connections with the Baroque and Romantic eras is not only helpful but truthful to the composer's own focus. It certainly goes beyond Svetlana's own CDs. Still, in our opinion, any listener should indeed be grateful that a performer is interested in building these kinds of bridges.

As the review of the Sonata drew to a close the reviewer could have compared this recording to the other two existing recordings of this work -the Premier recording by renowned pianist Boris Berman and the recent issue by Ragna Schirmer, reviewed on Musicweb-. Then it would have been apparent to the reviewer that Svetlana's reading was setting apart her performance from Berman's dry, cold, intellectual rendition and also from Schirmer's text altering sight reading exercise. Hence the qualities generously attributed to Svetlana's playing by the reviewer would have logically been related to the performer's own understanding of the piece.

We thank you for a thoughtful description of the Little Piano Pieces which only omitted the fact that this was the first time all eight had been faithfully recorded on one support.

We are delighted you recognized that this April 9, 2003 performance of the Concerto for Piano and Strings was significant and powerful, thus deserving exposure. We would have all enjoyed the requested professional crew to show up that evening as expected but we too had to settle with an amateur recording.

Having grown up with the Ace of Club Decca recordings of my father, I too value great sound. However, despite noises of cracking orchestra chairs as Sir Adrian Boult prepared for the final epic of the 1812 overture, I still enjoy this old LP more than the polished bells and whistle digital hyper recording of the same piece led by some uninspired conductor. Hence, it was our decision to share, as a bonus, this last performance by Nikolaevsky and include it on this CD.

Perhaps the reviewer could have also mentioned to the readership that the entire CD was dedicated to the memory of Nikolaevsky and our personal homage to Alfred Schnittke's music, not merely another anonymous commercial release by a megabucks factory. Let's face it, following 40 minutes of perfectly studio recorded music featuring a spiritual reading of the major First Sonata, the Premier recording of the entire Little Piano Pieces suite, we figured that for $15 bucks, the inclusion of a historical energy packed performance despite its lesser recording qualities would have met a kinder response.

After all this was an invitation to Music Directors to offer Svetlana a chance to perform again this incredible work and realize that she can deliver the goods! As for your alternate "audiophile" recommendations, none of them in my opinion come close to Viktoria Postnikova's Erato recording of the piece.

As a Post Scriptum to this letter, I wish the reviewer had the chance to listen to Irina Schnittke playing the Second Piano Sonata -which we discovered after our recording of the First was made- as I believe the reviewer would have sensed and appreciated the convergence of the souls and thus offered more than a fair recommendation to our effort.

Best regards,

Dr. Marc Villéger



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