Stoupel Plays Rathaus & Shostakovich

CAvi8553976D cover

RATHAUS: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3. SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 / Vladimir Stoupel, pno / CAvi-Music 8553976D

These are the kind of CDs I live for: works I did not previously have in my collection, played by a renowned and well-respected pianist. I tend to like Karol Rathaus’ music a bit more than that of Shostakovich—to me, Shosty whined and complained too much in his music—but both were clearly outstanding musicians although poor Rathaus has yet to receive his just due.

Just a few minutes into Rathaus’ Sonata No. 1 (1920) and you realize how much he was influenced, at this point, by the Russian school, particularly Scriabin. His use of pentatonic scales and extended chords are so much in the Scriabin vernacular that you might almost be fooled into thinking this was a piece by the Russian master. Interestingly, it was written as his entrance exam into Franz Schreker’s class at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, which he passed with flying colors. The sonata was even published by Universal Edition, with whom Rathaus signed a 10-year contract. Despite its indebtedness to Scriabin, Rathaus made some advances on the Russian’s style, using free tonality in places and quite complex polyphony. Yet even so, the lyrical second movement is quite haunting in its pentatonic way. Oddly, it is the “Scherzo” that is disappointingly slow and the most Romantic of all four movements.

Yet from the opening notes of the Third Sonata, which dates from 1927, is already breaking free from the Romantic formulism of the First while still retaining elements of Scriabin. As Stoupel points out in the liner notes, Rathaus went Scriabin one step further by doing away with time signatures, thus he can “make the measures as long or short as he wants.” And yet, the score still contains barlines, probably to illustrate to the prospective performer that this is still music. And Rathaus continued to use chromaticism and pentatonic scales, particularly in the third-movement fugue.

Oddly, the Shostakovich First Sonata sounds just as modernistic and innovative, perhaps more so, than Rathaus’ Third. The composer is all over the place in regards to extended chords and chromatic harmony; it almost sounds like a piece by Bartók and one by Stravinsky played together at the same time. Yet the young composer already had a firm grasp of structure, and there is an ironic march theme in the midst of the first movement that sounds like something from The Age of Gold. (It always amazes me how many composers toyed with pentatonic scales and extended chords during the 1920s.)

As Stoupel points out in the notes, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata, premiered in 1943, is clearly more conventional. The Soviet Bureau of Culture had knocked much of the innovation out of him; the music here is tamer, in places almost like film music, yet in places one is aware that this was written by a fine composer. In the reprise of the first movement, for instance, Shostakovich brings the first and second themes together in a very clever manner. In this music, too, we hear the composer’s familiar biting irony, giving listeners the sense that he knew he was being censored and wanted you to know that he wasn’t happy about it. This irony continues into the second movement, although here the composer shows us some interesting tricks with suspended chords in which he subtly shifts the harmony.

The second-movement “Largo” moves at a snail’s pace, almost coming to a complete stop at several points. Stoupel calls it “an extended swan song,” rather a dire comment for a composer who was only 35 years old at the time, but Shostakovich had been sleeping in the hallway of his apartment for several years, expecting the KGB to come and arrest him in the middle of the night.

This is an interesting program, expertly played.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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