About this Recording
GP765 - RÄÄTS, J.: Piano Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 1 - Nos. 1-4, 9-10 (Horvath)
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JAAN RÄÄTS (b. 1932)


Jaan Rääts belongs to a group of composers including Veljo Tormis, Eino Tamberg and Arvo Pärt who emerged in the 1960s to bring Estonian music into the modern mainstream, embracing the styles, philosophies and techniques taking hold among Western postwar composers.

Born on October 15th 1932 in Tartu, Estonia, Rääts studied piano at the Tartu Music High School. In 1957 he graduated from the Tallinn Conservatory, where he studied composition with Mart Saar and Heino Eller. From 1955 to 1966 Rääts worked at Estonian Radio as a recording engineer. He went on in 1966 to become their chief editor of music programmes, and worked between 1970 and 1974 as music manager of Estonian Television.

Rääts also served as chairman of the Estonian Composers’ Union from 1974 until 1993, and as teacher of composition at the Estonian Academy of Music was named professor in 1990. Composers such as Raimo Kangro, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Rauno Remme, Tõnu Kõrvits, Mihkel Kerem, Avi Benjamin Nedzvetski, Kerri Kotta, Toomas Trass, Vsevolod Pozdejev, Tõnis Kaumann and Timo Steiner make up a diverse and distinguished list of former Rääts pupils. In addition, Rääts has received numerous honours and awards in his native land, most recently the Estonian State Cultural Award (1995), the Annual Prize of Endowment for Music of Culture Endowment of Estonia (2002), the Annual Award of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia (2007), the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Estonian National Culture Foundation (2011), and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Republic of Estonia (2011).

The bulk of Rääts’ compositional output encompasses instrumental music, with ten symphonies and 24 concertos, an extensive catalogue of chamber music, and film scores. Rääts’ prolific body of work for piano includes the cycles 24 Preludes (1968), 24 Preludes to Estonian Folk Melodies (24 prelüüdi eesti rahvaviisidele, 1977), 24 Estonian Preludes (24 eesti prelüüdi, 1989), and three different series of miniatures entitled 24 Marginalia (24 marginaali—1979 for piano solo, 1980 for electronics, and 1982 for two pianos). His ten piano sonatas span a half century of creativity, and are only just getting to be known to Western listeners. Indeed, the present recordings of Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 10 are world premières, as well as the composer’s 2014 revision of No. 9.

Rääts’ sonatas embody a sophisticated yet organic fusion of opposites, characterised by playful simplicity, post-modernist dissonance, minimalistic obsession, harshly driving rhythms and achingly lyrical gestures. Poly-stylistic references, motives and quotations come and go at a rapid pace, or else topple over each other like commuters scrambling for a seat on the metro in rush hour. Superficially, one might make an analogy to the stylistic inclusiveness typical of Alfred Schnittke’s works, or plausibly claim Rääts to be the missing link between Dmitry Shostakovich and Steve Reich. Yet Rääts is recognizably his own man, whose inherent sense of form and internal balance brings clarity and cohesion to the disparate and kaleidoscopic elements of his style.

The first three piano sonatas were composed in 1959. Sonata No. 1 may be one of the few piano sonatas whose first movement is entirely made up of a single unaccompanied melodic line. The pulse is steady, yet the texture is varied as the line assiduously changes registers, concluding on the piano’s lowest note. The lament-like second movement is basically a scherzo in super-slow motion. Its first section alternates brooding chords with two-part counterpoint. The equally protracted and fragile trio is followed by a da capo of the opening section. Listeners familiar with Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano may find a kindred spirit in the dry, dissonant and rapid counterpoint of the sonata’s final movement, although the momentary appearances of slow, jazzy chords and hammered-out repeated figures are pure Rääts.

Sonata No. 2 opens with a movement characterised by an obsessive rhythmic pattern. Its quirky sound world suggests an angry and petulant bossa nova composer channelled through the later works of Janáček and Shostakovich. By contrast, the second movement Allegro’s scurrying polyphony and slow moments of chordal respite expand upon similar gestures in the aforementioned First Sonata finale. Movement Three, marked Grave, is a simple yet eloquent sarabande. It is played three times: the first time piano, the second time forte, and the final time fortissimo. The finale’s walking bass octaves and dotted rhythms tread a thin yet determined line between a fast march and the kind of Ragtime pastiche that Erik Satie loved.

The Third Sonata distills the essence of Rääts’ keyboard aesthetic over the course of its four brief movements. The opening Largo is mostly given over to pillar-like, declamatory chords, while the second movement Allegro is basically a lively canon in two voices. Flexible lines of recitative link the Adagio’s sustained chords, while the Allegro finale is a frisky two-part invention that concludes with a chorale.

The first two movements of Sonata No. 4 (composed in 1969) pursue similar yet distinct gestural trajectories, as if the same story were being told from two disparate points of view. Each commences with wild virtuosic flourishes, followed by sections marked “Quasi Beatles.” While there are no direct quotes from Beatles songs, Rääts still manages to channel certain flavours of the influential band’s idiom. Notice, for example, the repeated sequence of descending left hand fifths dominating the first movement, over which Rääts imposes modal, bluesy lines. Likewise, the second movement’s gradual cacophonous build-up of sonorities between 0:25 and 0:41 followed by bouncy staccato repeated chords suggests the famous orchestral climax midway through “A Day in the Life”, the final track on The Beatles 1967 release “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. The third movement is an unsettling yet energetic mosaic made up of dissonant arpeggios, pounding repeated chords, melodic fragments and quick embellishments, in which the climactic chords of The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” fleetingly enter and exit.

Written in 1985 and revised in 2014, the three movements of Piano Sonata No. 9 proceed from one to the next without interruption. Here Rääts’ signature repeated chords take on greater dynamism and urgency then before. Waves of arpeggios and massive sonorities convey an unfettered, rhapsodic sensibility that often belie the succinctness and sense of proportion with which Rääts juxtaposes these compositional blocks.

Like Sonata No. 9, the Tenth, from 2000, was revised in 2014. Its single movement represents Rääts’ aphoristic, non-narrative style with both elegant focus and unpredictable undercurrents. In the first eight measures, Rääts outlines a simple, quiet C major triad, which is suddenly obliterated by loud, middle register clusters. Calm reestablishes itself in F major, only to detour into a quick sequence of cutup ideas (a repeating suspended chord, sweeping arpeggios and dissonant pointillism), followed by a minimalist sequence that culminates with a chromatically descending right hand figure and a rising left hand scale. As the sonata progresses, earlier motives return in altered form, generating greater intensity and cumulative momentum. The final twelve measures constitute one of Rääts’ quirkiest codas: a plaintive A major/D major pattern, two bars of clusters in dotted rhythms, and two bars of C sharp minor arpeggios that conclude abruptly in midair.

While the sound world characterising Rääts’ keyboard works appears remarkably consistent, it is not easy to pinpoint or pigeonhole nor does the composer himself encourage one to do so. “I don’t like rigid systems,” says Rääts. “I like absorbing musical material, filtering it, emotionally developing it as needed. Using it as a springboard for my imagination… ”

Jed Distler

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