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Dedicated to Victims of War and Terror
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-75)

Chamber Symphony op.110a (1960)
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)

Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979)
Moscow Chamber Orchestra/Constantine Orbelian (pianist and conductor)
Recorded Skywalker Ranch, California, 5, 7 March 2000
DELOS DE3259 [47:48]


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Let me make it clear; this disc is not a barrel of laughs. Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony is an arrangement for string orchestra of one of his bleakest and most harrowing works, the Eighth Quartet, while pretty well all of Alfred Schnittke’s music is … well, bleak.

Oddly, however, bleak is not the same as depressing, even though, according to his son Maxim, Shostakovich was in a state of near suicidal depression when he composed the original quartet. This is an extraordinarily rich piece, marking as it does the extension of the self-referential process started most notably in the Tenth Symphony. Here you will find quotations from the First Symphony, the Piano Trio and the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk among others, while the D-S-C-H motif, the composer’s musical ‘signature’, is heard immediately at the outset (he uses German notation to ‘spell’ this, so that the notes work out as D-Eb-C-B in our notation) and permeates most of the work. The symphony rises from a grief-stricken opening movement, through the desperation of the Allegro molto, followed by the sardonic waltz of the third. The fourth movement is the crux of the work, occupying a similar position to the bassoon-led recitative in the Ninth Symphony. Barely audible sustained notes act as a static background to harsh down-bowed chords, which return menacingly despite various melodic explorations. The finale, unlike the Ninth Symphony’s, offers no escape from this confrontation, returning instead to the darkness from which the work sprung.

Barshai’s transcription is masterly, losing little of the intimacy of the original, and gaining much in power and impact. The Moscow Chamber Orchestra play superbly, and with an instinctive comprehension. This is not surprising as Barshai was their conductor when he made the transcription, and they gave the first performance.

The conductor, American Constantine Orbelian, is the soloist in the Schnittke concerto that follows. This was new to me, and I found it a fascinating work; as a composer, he was a master of transformation, often from the familiar to the strange. Listen to how he sets up a simple broken chord pattern, superficially reminiscent of the Moonlight Sonata, and gradually disfigures it. (Track 6, 2:05). Deliciously macabre! Sometimes, such passages are made more unsettling still by the use of microtonal glissandi in the strings (track 6, 5:30). In certain respects, this concerto has much in common with Chamber Symphony, for both works are essentially cyclic in structure. Here, the oppressive opening is succeeded by an urgent Allegro, more conventional in style, followed by a sinister gallumphing waltz (track 8, 0:00), which in turn dissolves into the powerfully dramatic cadenza for the soloist. Then, after a short interlude, there is a gradual return to the uneasy calm of the opening music.

Two uncompromising masterpieces, each one moving and intensely satisfying in its way, despite the prevailing sense of despair. The performances are pretty much ideal; Orbelian is as compelling a piano soloist in the Schnittke as he is a conductor in the Shostakovich, and the MCO plays with total commitment, as well as imagination and technical mastery. The recording captures it all effortlessly, with perfect balancing of the various elements. An outstanding issue.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see also review by Colin Clarke


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