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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Complete Piano Music
Piano Sonatas: No. 1 (1987) [30:23] No. 2 (1991) [18:52] 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]

Let's start by applauding the pianist Simon Smith and Delphian for striking out in unexpected directions. They could have belaboured us with yet another Chopin or Brahms or Beethoven collection of music for piano solo - often great music and great music-making but changes need to be rung and new lands explored. The ‘greats’ are the convention and those who do not tackle them will surely be criticised in some unimaginative quarters. However the release lists are rife with such discs or blends of music by eighteenth and nineteenth century luminaries. Such discs struggle to make themselves remembered. Not so this 2-CD slimline set; at least not for me. 

Delphian have already done great work in unexpected directions with the piano music of Leighton and Stevenson. That said, I had half expected a collection of this standing to come from Grand Piano, perhaps along the lines of their Silvestrov (Grand Piano GP639) and Babajanian discs.
 
The complete piano music of Russian exile Alfred Schnittke takes us in some pretty provocative directions. Much the same applies to his symphonies which can be conveniently explored on BIS-CD-1767/68 and in the part-series from Polyansky on Chandos.
 
CD 1 groups the three piano sonatas and the Variations. Piano Sonata No. 1 is from as recently as 1987 - that betrays my age - and was written for Nimbus luminary Vladimir Feltsman. It makes free with crystalline, sharp-edged and granitic dissonance. Its ways are statuesque, declamatory and rhetorical. The music explores musical notations representing the names of the pianist and the composer.
 
Sonata No. 2 was written for the composer's wife, Irina. This is in three movements rather than the four of its predecessor. Its ways are less protesting than those of No. 1 from three years earlier. The music is still dissonant but gentler and more inclined to poetry. There is just a touch of what can sometimes sound like rabble-rousing in the First. A flightily crashing finale returns us to the railroad rhythms and occasional fury of the First Sonata although it ends quietly. That quiet is troubled and almost threatening.
 
The four-movement Sonata No. 3 (1992) was premiered by Boris Berman in 1996. Here Schnittke at first takes a noticeably gentler lane in what was to be his last solo piano work. The Dies irae hangs in the wings of the sepulchral first movement. The music harks back to the First and Second sonatas in the second movement. This, with its eddies and whirls of fury, contrasts with a third movement that returns to the hypnotic downbeat of the first. The final Allegro's mosaic of fragments of gloomy introspection and flurries of motoric toccata-like activity brings this enigmatic work to a close.
 
The Variations are a student work dating from 1955. This could hardly be more different from its disc-mates. The language is romantic and closely related to that of Rachmaninov without quite the pensive and inwardly-coiled tendencies of that composer. This is very different from the Schnittke sonatas. This is romantic music with a fresh accent quite distant from the dissonant experimentation and more that was alive in the 1950s among young composers outside the Soviet Bloc. This would make as much of a useful quiz-poser as the early affectionate Chopin-facsimile works of Valentin Silvestrov. I am sure that it will please those who enjoy their Medtner, Bortkiewicz and Dobrowen. The theme, eight variations and coda are not separately tracked. The whole thing is done and dusted in just over eleven minutes. The fact that Schnittke abandoned this style is testimony to how the young man took Luigi Nono's advice to heart. In 1963 the Italian composer visited Moscow during one of the Soviet Union’s several artistic thaws and enthused the young Schnittke with exhortations to embrace the avant-garde.
 
The second disc groups many smaller works. The Prelude and Fugue is statuesque, steady and determined - doom-laden even. It tracks the extremes of volume with some very quiet pages. Neither Delphian nor Smith short-change Schnittke or the listener. Despite expectations inflamed by the title this work is not in the least academic. Instead it unleashes patterned runs, grotesquerie, incident-rich pages and free-wheeling fantasy. The pecked-out figure at the close is taken from Schnittke’s 1962 opera The Eleventh Commandment. The Improvisation and Fugue is also from the first half of the 1960s and is also serial. It communicates with steady-eyed clarity. Some sections have a jazzy character. I wonder if Schnittke knew Kapustin. As an aside I rather hope that Delphian and Smith might record all the Kapustin piano concertos: much needed. The Variations on a Chord entail seven short variations across seven minutes. It’s again touched with angular dissonance skilfully and thoughtfully applied.
 
The (8) Little Piano Pieces of 1971 were for Schnittke’s son, Andrey. They have jejune titles and the music is 98% innocence with the shortfall made up with just a shading of the composer’s unsettling turbulence. Each piece is between 0.29 and 3.13 duration. Then follows Homage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979). This is for three players at one piano. In his helpful liner-note Smith identifies the quotations from each composer’s works. All three are identifiable from what we hear, even if these elements are shards in a fractured kaleidoscope. The completely characteristic Five Aphorisms (1990) are each separately banded. The work is dedicated to Ukrainian pianist, Alexander Slobodyanik and the poet, Joseph Brodsky. At the New York premiere Brodsky read his poems between the each of the Aphorisms. The granitic and often sepulchral third and fifth Aphorisms are particularly striking. Sonatina for piano (four hands) (1994) is affectionate Mozartean and Schubertian indulgence with a slightly peppery edge. Richard Beauchamp who joins Smith here is Smith’s teacher and this Delphian double is dedicated to Beauchamp. We end with Schnittke’s cadenzas to Mozart's Piano Concertos K39 (2), K467 (2), K491 and K503 (1975-90). They are all separately tracked. Here Schnittke stays delightfully within the style of the main work in each case. Here is a 20th century composer presenting himself as a faithful servant of Mozart and not pushing himself forward. Everything seems of a piece with Mozart: affection meets skill.
 
If after this admirable set you need to slake your thirst with more Schnittke for piano then there is more in the shape of piano concertos and chamber music. Try Ewa Kupiec and Maria Lettberg for the three concertos and also on Capriccio a selection of the chamber music (N 67 083).
 
Smith has, in addition, recorded for Delphian the complete piano music of James Macmillan with the piano sonata by Stuart MacRae (DCD34009). There have also been discs of Thomas Wilson (DCD34079) and Haflidi Hallgrimsson (DCD34051).
 
Smith is clearly a force to be reckoned with. We will hear more of him, I hope.
 
Rob Barnett 




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