VIKTOR STEPANOVYCH KOSENKO: Piano Music, Volume 2: The Complete Piano Sonatas = Sonata No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 13; Sonata No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 14; Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 15 – Natalya Shkoda, piano – Centaur CRC 3109 [Distr. by Naxos], 49:44 ****:
Despite an all-to-brief life, Ukrainian composer Viktor Kosenko (1896–1938) wrote a good deal of music in a number of forms, including symphonies and other orchestral works, chamber music, and music for chorus and solo voice. But he favored his own instrument, the piano, with the greatest number and variety of pieces. Besides etudes, mazurkas, concert waltzes, nocturnes, and tone poems for piano, he produced the three sonatas on the present disc. Their opus numbers are misleading: Sonata No. 1 appeared in 1919, Sonata No. 2 in 1924, Sonata No. 3 in 1929. And Kosenko wasn’t otherwise idle during this decade, turning out piano etudes and a number of chamber works as well.
During the last decade of his life Kosenko taught in Kiev, including his final engagement at the Kiev Conservatory. Toward the end, the Soviet government began honoring Kosenko, most helpfully by granting him and his family a three-room apartment in Kiev. (For most of his career Kosenko lived in poverty and for nine years lived apart from his wife and stepdaughters, commuting to be with them on weekends in the city of Zhytomyr.) Kosenko also received the prestigious Order of the Red Banner just before his death of cancer at age forty-two.
Following his death, Kosenko’s music was widely heard and respected in the Ukraine, his etudes becoming required repertory in Ukrainian conservatories. But by the 1960s his music had slipped into obscurity even in his own country. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and a resulting rise in Ukrainian nationalism has restored Kosenko’s name and music somewhat: in his centenary year he was honored with a postage stamp bearing his portrait and a composers’ prize named for him. However, Kosenko’s work is little known in the West. Centaur Records and Ukrainian-born pianist Natalya Shkoda are in the process of correcting the oversight. This is the second volume of Kosenko’s piano music from Shkoda; the first featured Eleven Etudes in the Form of Old Dances, Op. 19. I haven’t heard that disc, but it has gotten some good press.
Listening to the three sonatas, it’s easy to see why the Soviet government was accepting of Kosenko. At a time when composers formerly associated with the Russian avant-garde, such as Gavrill Popov (and even Shostakovich, who lived under a cloud following Pravda’s 1936 attack on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk), were badgered into writing music understandable and pleasing to the proletariat, Kosenko’s old-fashioned music must have been a comfort to the Soviet authorities. The First Sonata, especially, has the late-Romantic effusiveness (or downright gushiness) of Rachmaninoff and sounds more than a bit like him in spots. The other sonatas are more restrained but have the same chord-dense, note-thick feeling of the older composer’s music. With the Third Sonata, it sounds as if Kosenko has caught up with Scriabin; at least, the bird song–like trills of that composer seem to find their way into the score. Supposedly, what distinguishes Kosenko from these Russian contemporaries is his use of “elements of Ukrainian folk music (modality and doubling the melody in the thirds and sixths).” But I’d have to say that if there is any folk influence in this music, it’s very subtle indeed.
At just over twelve minutes’ duration, the single-movement Third Sonata is the most economical of all and is compositionally the strongest. The Second Sonata, the only one in the standard three movements, makes its most telling statement in the ardent song without words of the slow movement. The rondo finale, despite its short length, is maddeningly repetitive and lacks the kind of memorable material that would let the composer off the hook. The bottom line: there is some beautiful music here, some of it well crafted, but it’s far from indispensable, even though the Third Sonata is worth knowing.
Certainly Kosenko is well served by pianist Shkoda, whose credentials include a doctor of musical arts degree from Arizona State University. She has a very large technique—and needs it to get through the million notes Kosenko throws at her. Beyond that, however, Shkoda has a clear understanding of Kosenko’s aesthetic, shaping and shading the music beautifully and naturally as to phrasing, use of the pedals, application of rubato and dynamic contrast; in short, she speaks his language.
I must say that Centaur’s audio standards have improved over the last decade. I’ve heard some very fine piano recordings from this label lately, and the powerful, very present sound the engineers have captured here adds a good deal to the pleasures of this disc. So thumbs up for the Third Sonata especially and for the first-rate pianism and engineering on display.
A cascading sweep of keyboard miniatures