David Kalhous – Sciarrino and Piano

For many years, I have been drawn to Sciarrino’s music for strings, winds and voice. I’ve felt that the mercurial, unstable, and perpetually fragile nature of Sciarrino’s musical aesthetics is best expressed by instruments whose pitches are less fixed and easier to manipulate than those of the piano. There is much beauty in his De la nuit (1971), Anamorfosi (1980), and 1st Sonata (1976), where rapid piano figurations both hide and expose direct quotations from Liszt, Ravel, and Debussy. The brilliant piano writing, undoubtedly a result of Sciarrino’s extensive and longstanding collaboration with the pianist Massimiliano Damerini, was not lost on me. But these pieces always felt emotionally withdrawn, almost indifferent, their message hidden behind the veil of the sonic haze of the ever-present impressionistic coloration.

Sciarrino once described his own music “like the eruption of a volcano viewed from afar.” Sciarrino’s scores from the 1980s on are imbued with a searing intensity in which no musical phrase is purely ornamental. Every gesture—be it a rapid figuration or a series of violent chromatic clusters, a sudden extreme change of dynamics or a shift between registers—is of paramount musical importance.

This is why Sciarrino’s later piano sonatas interest me more. Starting with the 2nd Sonata (1983), Sciarrino’s approach to piano texture becomes less linear than in his earlier works. The uses of extreme registers and dynamics, as well as silences which structure and illuminate the instrument’s sonic outburst have a direct visceral impact on the listener.

The 4th Sonata (1992) might be Sciarrino’s most radical piano composition so far. The familiar quasi-impressionistic figuration is dispensed. Instead we are immediately overwhelmed by violent, obsessive, almost manic reiteration of chromatic and diatonic clusters played by both hands in extreme registers of the instrument. The physical tension the pianist experiences during the performance (the piece is technically very demanding) translates into a psychological uneasiness that the listener will undoubtedly feel while listening to this piece.

This is one of the most remarkable scores I have encountered as a pianist, and I look forward (with some trepidation) to the concert with EVL at the University of Chicago next week, where Sciarrino’s 4th Sonata will be followed by chamber works by Donatoni, Scelsi and Gervasoni.