Carl Vine’s Piano Sonatas

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VINE: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-4 / Xiaoya Liu, pno / Dynamic DYN-CDS7931-1

The Italian CD label Dynamic is one of my favorite indies (along with Brilliant Classics, IBS Classical, TYXart and one or two others) because their recordings of older, more traditional music, particularly opera, are usually fresh and interesting, often with excellent casts, and their occasional ventures into instrumental music—like this one—are very intriguing.

Carl Vine (b. 1954) is an Australian composer, very well known in his native country but not so much here in America (and I’m not sure about the European continent). Xiaoya Liu, who I’ve not heard of before, appears to be a fine pianist, although, since I am not familiar with these works and these are their first recordings, I cannot assess how close they are to the scores.

The opening of the first sonata is quite different from what one might expect, being slow, moody music set to bitonal harmonies. This in itself sets Vine apart from many other contemporary composers who, if they do write slow, moody music, tend to swath it in Romantic harmony, much to my dismay. A minute and a half into this movement, however, Vine ups both the volume and tempo as he gets involved in some truly spectacular polyphonic writing…it almost sounds like two pianists playing together! Vine then slows back down for a variation on the original theme, which he develops well. The second movement is a fast-paced “Leggiero e legato” which sounds like a variant on the fast middle section of the first, except that here the middle section is the slow one, using similar rhythms with some fragmentation in them.

The second sonata, written seven years later, is also in only two movements, but here it is the first that is fast and powerful. Vine is clearly an emotional composer; there is a great deal of feeling in his music, and in his fast passages he apparently likes a headlong rush of notes to convey tension. In this first movement, too, Vine uses a surprisingly lyrical (albeit tonally ambiguous) melody in the right hand played against fast-paced rising and falling scalar figures in the left, which creates tremendous sweep. The second movement, which opens in a medium tempo, uses contrapuntal figures between the two hands which invariably increase in speed and volume as the music becomes busier, almost frantic in places. There’s also a slight allusion to a boogie-woogie beat in some of the left-hand figures, which I liked very much. Vine is nothing if not a mercurial composer whose restless mind is continually inventing complex figures that have shape and form, and thus give the listener much pleasure  on both a visceral and intellectual level.

The third sonata, though divided into four movements, has a playing time that is actually shorter than the second. By this time, Vine seems to have consolidated some of his previous musical ideas into shorter, terser statements, at times eschewing bravura playing in lieu of somewhat simpler, more direct themes and development sections. This first-movement “Fantasia” could, in fact, almost be a stand-alone piece; it is a fascinating, self-contained unit. The “Rondo” movement consists, as the notes indicate, of “Three statements of a rhythmically infused stamping theme,” while the third is a medium-slow set of variations and the fourth a wild moto perpetuo in a mixed-harmony (major mixed with minor) mode, although the slow middle section is more harmonically consonant and calls for frequent use of the sustain pedal.

The three movements of the fourth sonata have descriptive titles, “Aphorisms,” “Reflection” and “Fury,” but much of the style used here is reflective of devices used in his previous sonatas, i.e. the rolling, sweeping left-hand figures against an almost Romantic-sounding right hand, counterpoint, etc. In a way, I found this to be the least original of the four sonatas, but that’s only because I heard the first three prior to hearing it.

Xiaoya Liu is a superb pianist who really gets into the heart of this music, not just by making those extremely difficult passages sound easy but also by her musical treatment of each bar and note. This is, then, not only an important release due to its being the first made of Vine’s sonatas but also a superb rendition of them.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Carl Vine’s Piano Sonatas

  1. YB Schragadove says:

    You incorrectly mention that these are their first recordings – several sonatas have been previously recorded, including Michael Kieran Harvey’s Tall Poppies release of Piano Sonatas 1 & 2.


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