Andrew Violette, composer & pianist: Piano Sonatas, Vol.. 2 (Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5,& 6). Innova 641, 3 CDs, 205:55, ©2005, $32.00. http://www.innova.mu/.
This is the companion set to Vol. 1, Sonatas Nos. 1 (1978) & 7 (2001), also 3 CDs, released in 2003, reviewed in these pages by this writer, and selected by Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe as one of the three best new music CDs of that year. CD 1 is occupied by Sonatas 6 (1986) (11:55), 4 (1982) (34:34), and 2 (1979) (12:40), in that order. CD 2 contains Sonata 3 (1979) (75:51), and CD 3, Sonata 5 (1985) (70:50). The recording order is a bit of a mystery: why not chronologically for CD 1? Vol. 1 was also recorded in reverse order; but CDs 2 and 3 of Vol. 2 are in order of composition rather than reverse order. Dyer provides an introductory note in the booklet accompanying this set that opens with a comment on the importance of sequence through the works and how they all add up to a single whole, which would require a complex shuffling of the 6 CDs for the listener to obtain. The remainder of the booklet notes, by the composer, provides the background for the genesis and composition as well as a detailed description of each sonata, presented in the recorded rather than chronological order. Violette also mentions in conclusion the composers – such as Bach, Messiaen, and the usual modern American suspects – and visual artists – such as Jackson Pollack – who most influenced him in his development.
Dyer's comment notwithstanding, each sonata does stand perfectly well alone, and continuous sequential listening is by no means necessary to appreciate and enjoy these quintessential late 20th-century works that are nonetheless distinctly the work of Violette. They are characterized by the use of all the modern styles including minimalism, a bit of atonality, and dissonance, but they are largely tonal, featuring chords, silences, runs, arpeggios, and clearly discernible melodies, though these latter are in no way Romantic. Older forms such as theme and variations and the return of earlier material for cyclical effect are also often used. Sonata 6 is described in the publicity as "a hurricane of notes with a moment of silence at the eye." Most of the music has a mathematical and objective feel, not in the least emotive or subjective. Rhythm, often inexorable, is clearly a primary concern, as is the contrast between extremes. For example, Sonata 2 opens with three loud chords, separated from each other by 45 seconds of silence. Violette often leaves no doubt that the piano is a percussive instrument, but he also makes it sing. He controls it so carefully and persuasively that one perceives it as an extension of himself, a part of his being. Indeed, although he notes that Sonata 6 was composed for another pianist and that he learned it for this recording, the others were either explicitly or presumably written for himself to perform. The recordings seem the composer's authoritative word on his works in a more complete and convincing way than others billed as such.
These sonatas are not written in the traditional three-movement fast-slow-fast sonata form. Sonata 6 is in a single movement, although it is actually three études back to back; Sonata 4 is in 6 movements; Sonata 2, the sole exception, is in 3; Sonata 3 is in 14 movements; and Sonata 5, in 13. Some movements have titles, such as the first, of Sonata 4: "The bell tolls thrice"; others pick up threads of an earlier one after an interruption by the intervening movement. Violette is fond of dance rhythms and the Tarantella in particular – he uses it in two of the five sonatas, and in two different sections in one. The works all have an organic structure with the movements relating to each other and progressing towards their conclusions.
One can conclude from the booklet notes that Violette places some stock in numerology, and some portions show evidence of mysticism and meditation, but these works are not as imbued with this as is Sonata 7. Sonata 5, built on the Appalachian folk hymn "What Wondrous Love is This," comes closest. This is compelling music, music that requires attentive concentration; it is very far removed from the wallpaper music that usually fills the airwaves. It is beautiful in spots, but it is never pretty. Focused attention rewards the listener with recognition of references to works by earlier composers and of the skillful use of familiar compositional techniques, both ancient and modern, and appreciation of the overall architectural structure of the pieces, especially the longer ones.
The graphics of Vol. 2 continue without repeating (except on the faces of the CDs themselves, which are all alike, featuring four leather harness straps around a central metal ring) those of Vol. 1. Photos show the composer, dressed in leather, whipping the score into submission, though not yet into shreds, as in Vol. 1. This is a bit off-putting and perhaps also misleading insofar as the music itself is concerned: there is nothing tortured about it, nor is it in any way torturing for the listener, unlike some other notorious modern music.
Note: Violette's "The Death of the Hired Man," for soprano, tenor, and piano, is reviewed at http://cvnc.org/reviews/cd_dvd_book/cd/Violette2.html.