March/April 2009, "Fanfare" magazine, USA
SCHNITTKE Piano Sonatas/Igor Tchetuev. Like many listeners of my generation searching for new voices a quarter century ago, I was drawn to a group of Soviet/Russian composers just beginning to emerge in the West. By the time they reached our ears, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, and a handful of others were fully formed, mature composers who had developed in relative isolation, bearing dozens of fascinating works that were unapologetically modern. They seemed light years ahead of the conservatism of Shostakovich, even as they acknowledged his compelling influence.
So it was with keen anticipation that I unwrapped this new disc of piano sonatas of Schnittke performed by Igor Tchetuev, especially since I had come to know the composer exclusively through his orchestral and ensemble works. I have never heard any of them in the hundreds of piano recitals I've attended, so I assumed that posterity had dismissed them for reasons of merit. I see now that posterity has shown remarkably poor taste in relegating them to near obscurity. These three sonatas (clustered at the end of his life from 1988-1992) are quite simply among the most remarkable broadly conceived solo keyboard works from the last three decades.
One of the composer's eccentricities was his use of classical labels when the works in question bore little resemblance to classical form other than a multimovement division. His First Sonata contains four movements of differing tempos, but their structures seem mostly linear. The opening Lento bears the imprint of late, thinly textured Shostakovich, with a similar mysticism and bleak mien that colors some of Gubaidulina's scores. The second movement (Allegretto) gives the impression of an artist trying in fits and starts to find some degree of lightness in an otherwise unbearable world. Gestures unfold with a veneer of jocularity, but tonal references are brief and ambiguous, and brutal clusters interrupt periodically.
The contrasts in all three sonatas are massive (take care setting that volume dial in the first track!), from whispered, isolated delicacies to eruptions of sonic cluster bombs one hears often in the music of Galina Ustvolskaya. If the listener considers the three as a single hour-long construction (as Anna Andrushkevich wisely suggests in the notes), parallels to such landmarks of scale as Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l 'enfant-Jesus come to mind. Besides probing accounts of the three sonatas, Tchetuev gives an incendiary reading of Improvisation and Fugue (1965), a thornier work, but nevertheless intensely personal and communicative.
Incredibly, there seem to be only two other discs in print devoted entirely to Schnittke's piano music: Boris Bem1an's 1998 recording on Chandos (with the Second and Third Sonatas as well as several brief works), released shortly after the composer's death, and Ragna Schirmer's traversal of the three sonatas on Berlin Classics. I haven't heard the latter, but Berman's disc is as powerful and idiomatic as one would expect. Tchetuev's sound is recorded with exceptional care, a fact telegraphed by the prominent display of the microphone model numbers on the back cover.
The program notes are lengthy if disjointed, sporadically informative but occasionally inaccurate, though the translation from Russian may be partly to blame. Most important, Tchetuev's readings are utterly persuasive, authoritative, and at times gut wrenching. Perhaps it is the gloomy nature of the works themselves that leave me pessimistic regarding their eventual admittance into the canon, a distinction they richly deserve.