Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Schnittke Cello Sonatas Østerlind Gryesten


Schnittke: Cello Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2. Suite in the Old Style. Musica Nostalgica

Carl-Oscar Østerlind (vc)

Emil Grysten (pn)

DANACORD 878 (55:32)


A disc of Schnittke works for cello and piano is an attractive proposition for performers. That is primarily because of his First Cello Sonata (1978), which is one of his most popular works. The piece distils Schnittke’s religious and meditative sensibility at the time—his mother had died in 1972, precipitating a gradual adoption of the Christian faith through the 70s—but also has a turbulent and virtuosic middle movement, that comes off well both live and on disc. The makeup of such a program is a more complicated issue though. There is about a disc and a half of cello and piano music available, and the choice is either to stick with the somber mood of the sonata, or introduce some of the lighter, occasional works that Schnittke arranged from his film music. Like most cellists, Carl-Oscar Østerlind takes the latter course, but he also includes the Second Cello Sonata, which is a rarity on disc, and he really excels in this abstract and challengingly ethereal music.

In the First Sonata, Østerlind is up against strong competition—Gutman, Rostropovich, Geringas, Wallfisch, Elschenbroich, Gerhardt, but above all Alexander Ivashkin, still the touchstone in all this repertoire—but he holds his own. The first movement monologue is presented in hesitant, cautious phrases, a very confessional and intimate sound. The Presto second movement is faster than the norm, but gains in urgency are off-set by a loss of gravitas. The piano of Emil Gryesten is somewhat distant from the microphones, and his staccato octaves in the bass lack heft. The cello, by contrast, is up close, and when the moto perpetuo begins, the cellist’s fingers are audible tapping against the fingerboard. Again in the finale, both the cello and the piano suffer from a lack of bass presence. But the performance of the work’s ending is impressive: again, the music reduces to a plaintive monologue for the cello, and Østerlind’s bare, fragile sound is ideal.

Suite in the Old Style is a series of Baroque/Classical pastiches derived from Schnittke’s film music and originally arranged for violin and piano. Østerlind and Gryesten again give a propulsive, dynamic reading, boisterous in the fast movements and ironically austere in the slower sections. Although the entire work is in well-behaved tonal styles, Schnittke adds one searing dissonance near the end, highlighting the work’s satiric nature. The effect does not really come off here, it’s a violin effect really, but other cellists are better able to punch it through the texture.

The Second Cello Sonata dates form 1994 and is one of Schnittke’s final works. It is a tough work to interpret, its musical language pared back, but its drama and expression as vivid as in any of his earlier music. Østerlind and Gryesten exploit that austerity, making the textures particularly brittle and confrontational. The fast movements, Nos. 2 and 4 of a five-movement arch form, are propulsive and highly charged, while the slower ones are reflective but unsentimental. This is the finest performance on the disc, and the players are to be congratulated for the including the work. It’s just a shame that, like almost every other duo to have tackled this literature, they omit the Epilogue from Peer Gynt. To my mind, that is Schnittke’s greatest cello work, but at almost half and hour, its omission is understandable.

Instead the program closes with Musica Nostalgica, another film music transcription, this time written directly for cello (for Rostropovich). It is a lightweight work, and feels like a stopgap, although it is a standard selection for Schnittke cello recordings.

Much as I appreciate the inclusion of the Second Sonata, and the fine performance it receives, the important work here is the First Sonata, which has now been staple repertoire since the 1980s. Østerlind and Gryesten lack some drama and heft in the work, but their reflective and confessional approach is attractive on its own terms, and highlights an aspect of the music that more overtly virtuosic readings overlook.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 45:3.


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