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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
String Quartet No.1 (1966)
String Quartet No.3 (1983)
String Quartet No.4 (1986)
Canon in Memory of Igor Stravinsky (1971)
Kapralova Quartet
Recorded live at the Church of St Simon and St Jude, Prague in May 2002 at the Prague String Festival
ARCO DIVA UP 0054-2 131 [75.28]

The first thing to note is that these are immensely accomplished performances made live at the 2002 Prague Spring by the all-female Kapralova Quartet – who have recorded their namesake’s highly impressive quartet recently. The second is the complex difficulty of much of the music. The greatest difficulty lies in the First and for me least rewarding of these three recorded quartets. The First dates from 1966 and is a tough atonal work in three movements, Sonata, Canon and Cadenza. Formally this may seem explicit but the greater truth underlying the quartet is that it enacts a kind of catastrophic implosion in which a musical disintegration takes place before our ears. When it returns the twelve note row re-establishes a degree of tangible order but what has gone before is frequently harrowing. There’s plenty of pensive material, abrasive pizzicati and coruscating drama. Though the Canon utilises a set of variations one’s ear is drawn to the Cadenza, violently charged and volatile that leads to the return of the tone row; never had I longed for one more. This is tough, astringent and demanding music and demands completely concentrated listening.

The Third Quartet was written for the legendary Beethoven Quartet in 1983. It’s in Schnittke’s polystylistic form and establishes and embraces a kind of historical continuum from Lassus to Shostakovich. Schnittke quotes from Lassus as he does briefly from Gesualdo in the opening Andante. Even here, where the material is more musing and introspective Schnittke is prepared to unleash some vicious sounding trilling. The Agitato second movement is eager and vibrant with attractive unison passages alternating with prayerful Renaissance glints, cumulatively impressive and compellingly moving in the way he was often moving, as, for example the Viola Concerto. The finale is by contrast brittle, tense occasionally relaxing, shadowing Shostakovich. The Fourth Quartet was written in 1986 after his catastrophic stroke and there is a new soundworld here, one of stillness, refraction and absorption. The sense of concentration is overwhelming in terms both of material but also of sonority. He still exploits registral extremes but these demands are not arbitrary and are securely locked into the emotional fabric and trajectory of the piece. In the second of the five movements, an Allegro, there is real bristle and drive, real colour and drama whereas the succeeding lento is exceptionally complex; time seems to stand still. The Quartet is based on a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow pattern and the fast movements can be almost suffocatingly febrile, fraught and calamitous. It would be easy to read the work as an autobiography but it makes "sense" in strictly musical terms as a intensely coiled drama both violent and meditative. The disc ends with Schnittke’s moving elegy to one of his models, Stravinsky.

Jonathan Woolf

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