Schnittke Violin Sonata (1955)

performed by Carolyn Huebl, violin; Mark Wait, piano

(You can find this recording on Spotify, or with different performers on SoundCloud, but probably only if you’re in the U.S.)

(cover image by Jez Timms)

Alfred Schnittke published four violin concertos and three violin sonatas in his lifetime, besides some other solo or concertante work. Among the works he published, however, is NOT the violin sonata we’ll discuss today.

It was written nearly a decade before his first numbered, published violin sonata, from 1963. This sonata also predates his (according to Richard Whitehouse at Naxos) “frequently uncharacteristic” first violin concerto. In fact, the work was lost and only rediscovered and performed after the composer’s death. Thankfully, we have the above-mentioned recording of the work, which is really wonderful.

Now, ‘wonderful’ is obviously a subjective term. If you love Schnittke’s more mature works, like some of the stuff we’ve talked about here before and are reading/listening expecting that, you may not find it so wonderful. Surprisingly, it’s quite… tame in light of what he did later in his career. There’s an obvious connection to Shostakovich here, but I’d say it’s early Shostakovich, like from his very early piano trio or something.

The work is in two movements and lasts a total of about 15 minutes, as follows:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante

Unlike some other two-movement works we’ve discussed recently, this piece doesn’t feel truncated or incomplete. In fact, there’s really something so perfect to me about a sonata-form movement paired with a theme-and-variations, which is more or less what we have here.

The first movement gives us what is basically two themes, but they seem to be intertwined from the beginning. The very first utterance from the piano not only establishes the first theme, but is kind of a foregleam of what it will become.

In contrast with Schnittke’s later, aggressive, harsh sounds, this work is surprisingly soft, colorful, almost impressionistic, even, in the piano writing and lyricism of the violin. There’s so little about it that says Schnittke. It’s truly beautiful in a way we don’t really hear from him later in his career.

This first subject, at least to me, sort of morphs into a contrasting idea in the way that you’d blend two colors in a watercolor painting rather than having a modulation and a thick black line between them. Once you get to where the theme has pretty much almost become a march, make a note of your timestamp and jump back to the beginning of the movement.

See? Now go back to where you were, a few minutes in. Once you have these two ideas in mind, you’ll appreciate where the young composer goes with the first movement. The momentum to that march builds and builds, and a connection to Shostakovich becomes more apparent in the cold, menacing, march-like nature of the music.

The second movement is a theme-and-variations, shorter than the previous movement, and in many ways also kind of homogenous in that it never ventures too far away from the main theme and the way it was presented. The theme is offered up, and then there are three contrasting variations, the third of which is the most interesting. The movement is, as a result, not hard to follow, which makes this piece not only pretty universally enjoyable but also accessible. As a result, though, it’s also inherently a little bit unrepresentative of the composer’s more mature style. That being said, it’s really an admirable, beautiful work, and shows that despite what his critics might say, he did have at least some talent. After all, he was a mere 21 years old when this piece was written.

I find the sounds of the music itself enjoyable, but also how it’s developed, the overall trajectory and contour and growth of this piece. It’s nothing really groundbreaking, obviously, but I remember having listened to this months ago and being impressed by it, and enjoying it a little more with each listen, so here we have it on the blog in a little bunch of Editor’s Choice works before we begin another big series.

Yes, another series starts this weekend, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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