Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Saturday, 27 June 2020

Schnittke Anniversary Edition Melodiya

SCHNITTKE Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Piano Quintet. Violin Sonata No. 2. Concerto for Piano and Strings. Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. Violin Concerto No. 4

Gennady Rozhdestvensky (pn), cond; Dmitri Kitayenko, cond; Viktoria Postnikova, Alexander Bakhchiev, Vladimir Skanavi, Eliso Virsaladze (pn); Liana Isakadze, Gidon Kremer (vn); Borodin Qrt; Moscow PSO; SO of the USSR Ministry of Culture; SO of the Moscow Conservatory

MELODIYA 10 02630 (2 CDs: 145:09)

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This two-disc album presents broadcast recordings of Schnittke’s music from concerts at the Moscow Conservatory between 1977 and 1990. Most of the works were very recent at the time of recording, and although there are no premiere performances here, several of the players are dedicatees of the music they perform.
The conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky is a looming presence throughout all of this music, though he was only directly involved in the composition of the first piece, the piano six-hand work Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979). This 1980 recording features the same three players who gave the premiere the previous year, Rozhdestvensky (in a rare outing as pianist), his wife, Viktoria Postnikova, pianist Alexander Bakhchiev. The 1979 concert for which Rozhdestvensky commissioned the work was devoted to four-hand and six-hand works for a single piano, and also featured music by Czerny, Grainger, Smetana, and Moscheles. Schnittke emphasizes the sense of humor of his three dedicatees, taking quotations from Shostakovich’s ballet The Golden Age, Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale, and Prokofiev’s Humorous Scherzo for four bassoons. The composers are also represented by monograms, and the material is carefully layered among the parts. It is a light-hearted program opener—though the quotations are obscure—and is played well here.
The Second Violin Sonata (1968) marked a turning point in Schnittke’s music, away from the serial techniques he had employed in the early 60s and towards the polystylism for which he is best remembered today. Emphatic G-Minor chords punctuate the piano part, as if to reclaim the sonority, but there is still no functional tonal harmony. A motif based on the B-A-C-H monogram also appears, harmonized with unrelated diatonic harmonies. The work was written for Mark Lubotsky, who premiered it in 1969. This performance, by Liana Isakadze, dates from 1977. Melodiya also released a recording of Isakadze performing the work in 1978 (S 10-10831-2), but that was presumably a studio version, although it was with the same pianist., Vladimir Skanavi. Their playing here is propulsive and vigorous. Isakadze is less aggressive than some in this music, but she is able to maintain the sense of unpredictability, with each of the new ideas and transformations presented as a fresh and original idea.
The Piano Quintet (1972–76) was written in response to the death of Schnittke’s mother. It introduced an elegiac character into his music that continued for a decade. Ghostly waltzes and ethereal chorales add a polystylistic dimension, but everything is somber and reflective, avoiding the extreme stylistic contrasts of the sonata. The work is well-represented on disc, but this performance, from 1984, is a revelation. It is given by the Borodin Quartet and pianist Eliso Virsaladze. Although these players did not give the work’s premiere, the piece was originally written for the Borodin Quartet, and the fourth movement opens with a chord derived from each of the player’s initials. In this performance, they capture the contemplative mood perfectly, but, like Isakadze, they maintain a focussed narrative quality throughout. Virsaladze is able to blend the piano into the string sound, or at least project a feeling of unity within the ensemble, without any sense that the strings and piano are in competition.
The Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) extends the religious imagery that Schnittke had been experimenting with in the Piano Quintet, and most of the music is made up of allusions to Orthodox chant and to Russian bell ringing. The work is harmonically dense, as both the chorales and the bells are usually presented through bitonal harmonies, cleverly voiced to give the impression of clear triads projecting though the dissonance. That sort of religious imagery pervades the work, but only comes through if the pianist has a feel for those unexpected moments of clarity. Vladimir Krainev gives a compelling account, with just the right mix of mystical contemplation and fervid aggression. The concerto was written for Krainev, and this recording, from February 1980 was made just two months after he had given the premiere in Leningrad. Unfortunately, the strings of the Moscow Philharmonic don’t match his precision, and Schnittke’s (admittedly complex) textures are often muddied by poor ensemble. This work is also well represented on disc. Top choice is the version with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conducting the London Sinfonietta (Erato 45742). But also consider the brand-new recording from Denis Matsuev with Kammerorchester Wien-Berlin under Rainer Honeck (DG 4838489, see review this issue), an expansive and highly Romantic account, a little lacking in bite, but rich in expression and with excellent ensemble.
The second disc opens with an address from Rozhdestvensky to the Moscow audience, ahead of the performance of the Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5. He speaks in Russian, but an English translation is included in the booklet. He seems to be concerned that the audience will struggle with the work’s double affiliation, but his explanation is clear and succinct. The first movement is the Concerto Grosso, for violin, oboe, and harpsichord soloists and in the Bach-focused neo-Baroque style that Schnittke had developed in his earlier grossi. It then develops into a Mahlerian symphony, by way of an arrangement of a piano quartet fragment that Mahler wrote as a 16-year-old. The work was written for the Royal Concertgebouw, a commission to celebrate the orchestra’s centenary in 1988. Rozhdestvensky’s performance is the Moscow premiere, given in 1990. The Concertgebouw had recorded the work, with Riccardo Chailly, in 1989 (Decca 430698), and that remains the benchmark. Chailly is more fluid in the Mahlerian music—Rozhdestvensky more frenetic. The Concertgebouw playing is far superior to the Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture, heard here, but the latter does sound satisfyingly Russian, with narrow woodwinds and blaring brass.
The Fourth Violin Concerto (1984) was written for Gidon Kremer, who plays it here, and a monogram based on his name is one of the main motifs. The work is a companion piece to the more famous Viola Concerto, and in both, Schnittke experiments with the effect of corrosive banality, as a deliberate expressive tool. So the music regularly drifts into light dance rhythms or other incongruous allusions, like the Big Ben chimes with which it opens. A serious undercurrent balances these effects, and the “real” music that Schnittke writes here is similar to the quasi-Mahler in the Fifth Symphony, lyrical but freely atonal and dissonant. Kremer also recorded the work with the Philharmonia and Christoph Eschenbach in 1996. That was part of a variable complete set of Schnittke’s violin concertos (Warner 3984-26866-2), but fortunately it was the most convincing of the four recordings. Superior playing by the Philharmonia seals the deal—Kremer is consistently fine across the two accounts—though Rozhdestvensky is more laid back here than in the symphony, and is in perfect sympathy with Kremer’s approach.
Sound quality is reasonable to good. The first disc is noticeably older than the second in terms of recording standards, but both have a dry sound that suggests overly zealous remastering. The packaging is lavish, with the release described as an “Anniversary Edition,” marking Schnittke’s 85th birthday, which fell in 2019. The recordings have obvious historical significance, but they are also fine performances in their own right. The range of repertoire is also impressive, and even though the Piano Quintet is the only top-choice recording, the album should also serve to introduce new audiences to Schnittke’s music.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 44:1.

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