If I had to choose one word to describe the music of Central and Eastern Europe in the years after World War II, it would be “restless.” This restlessness actually predates the War, having its roots in the Vienna of the years before World War I and spreading in the years between the Wars. Of course, this phenomenon was not confined to Europe east of the Rhine, considering the migration of composers such as Schoenberg to America, but it seems somehow to be concentrated there. We find a lot of experimentation, the adoption of new ideas going all the way back to Debussy and his use of tone blocks, Schoenberg’s serialism, Stravinsky’s audacious experiments in sound and his return to a severe neo-classicism. (I wonder sometimes what Haydn would have thought of that.)
One of the key contributors to this ferment was Béla Bartók (1881-1945), the Hungarian composer who was so influential, openly or surreptitiously, on so many composers of the mid-century and later. Bartók himself absorbed many influences throughout his career, from composers such as Richard Strauss, Stravinsky and Schoenberg to Hungarian folk music, which he not only recorded and transcribed but incorporated into his own works.
One can, in fact, hear the influence of folk music, not only Hungarian but the music of the Roma, in his Violin Sonata No. 2 (1922), but one has to listen very, very carefully, as any such influence is heavily filtered through the other influences the composer had digested by that point in his career. What stands out when listening to this piece is the seamless synthesis of the elements. Frankly, this one is really heavy-duty, both sonically and intellectually. The basic feel is post-Schoenberg atonality, but there are passages that are extremely melodic, almost lyrical, interspersed with staccato interludes that build a sense of mystery, of impending – something: you’re never quite sure what’s coming next. There are sections that are lively, almost playful, that oscillate back and forth with passages that are almost languorous. And somehow the sound becomes much richer than one expects from a work for violin with piano accompaniment. This is not an easy piece, and violinist Miranda Cuckson is right on top of it. Her delivery is clean, sharp, and more than a little evocative. Blair McMillen, on piano, is right with her.
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was, early on, influenced by Dmitri Shostakovich, which is perhaps no surprise: although of German heritage, Schnittke lived in Russia during the years of Shostakovich’s pre-eminence as a composer. Like many other composers of mid-century, Scnittke moved to a “polystylistic” technique, initially a combination of the rules of serial composition with a more free-form, tonal approach, eventually becoming just what it sounds like: a synthesis of many different styles. (Sadly, this sort of thing was not really welcomed by the Soviet authorities.)
His Violin Sonata No. 2 (1968), subtitled “Quasi una Sonata,” reflects a kind of tension inherent in this approach – from the opening chords, a sort of statement and response between piano and violin, the piece moves into what sounds like Schoenbergian atonality, but as the work progresses, the listener is treated to a much looser kind of music – at times one is not sure whether the violinist and pianist are reading from the same score. It’s that kind of building up, tearing down, wildly exploratory feeling, almost like a treasure hunt with maps that aren’t quite the same. It sounds chaotic, but, while there is a certain random feeling to it all, it’s quite coherent and, actually, a lot of fun to listen to. Cuckson and McMillen seemed to have assimilated this “Schnittke Uncertainty Principle” with no trouble.
Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) was one of the major European composers of the twentieth century, and another who was influenced by his native folk music. He was another, like Schnittke (and probably just about any European composer of the period) who began to develop his own compositional techniques, apparently having small patience with “schools.” There is also a somewhat random element to his compositions, in which he began to make use of aleatoric compositional techniques, introducing an element of chance into the rhythmic coordination of the various lines.
In his Partita for Violin and Piano (1984) this element of chance becomes even more central to the work, as the second and fourth movements, both brief interludes, are meant to be played, as the composer put it, “ad libitum,” which means just what it says. This is, once again, a work of many moods, many contrasts. The musical vocabulary is one that will be familiar to anyone who listens to the music of the twentieth century, spare and not traditionally “melodic.” This vocabulary lends itself to a certain kind of tension, which Lutosławski makes full use of, for example, in the third movement, which is almost, but not quite, excruciating. Don’t take this to mean that the work is full of some kind of Sturm und Drang: this tension also serves to build momentum in a work in which tempo is subject to change without notice. This is ultimately a rewarding piece of music, performed with finesse by Cuckson and McMillen.
As you may have guessed from previous comments, Cuckson and McMillen not only are obviously sympathetic to this music, but have developed a solid rapport in their performances. I think this one deserves serious consideration for our basic library of twentieth-century music.
(ECM New Series, 2016)