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Cello Concerto No.1 (1985-86)
Sounding Letters’ for solo cello (1988)
Four Hymns for cello and instrumental ensemble (1974-77)
Torlief Thedéen (cello)
Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Leif Segerstam
Recorded at the Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2-3 Nov. 1989 (concerto) and Danderyd Grammar School, Sweden, 15-16 Sept, 1990 (rest)
BIS CD 300507 [70’35]

The BIS label have been great champions of Schnittke’s work, and many of their discs have become ‘benchmark’ versions. There is surely no better version of the Cello Concerto No.1 than this expertly played and recorded one. The piece itself is full of Schnittke thumbprints and is a perfect example of his now familiar brand of ‘poly-stylism’. One could unkindly summarize this as ‘anything goes’, but that would be unfair. The work is rigorously structured, with an almost classical proportion to the four individual movements. One also gets the sense of a ‘proper’ concerto, one that balances the romantic ideal of interplay and confrontation between soloist and orchestra, the sense of an epic battle being fought between protagonists.

This is evident from the start, where a relatively simple idea on cello nags away, first being helped along supportively by the huge orchestra, before unsuccessful attempts are made to crush the soloist into submission. It is all played out on the broadest of canvases and at no time is one aware of the music going nowhere – Schnittke always understood the need for line and direction. The massive, weighty finale (Schnittke was fond of the ‘big’ finish) has a real sense of catastrophe, of seismic events out of one’s control. The playing is superb, with soloist and orchestra in perfect accord about the ‘meaning’ behind the notes. This is just the sort of epic, sprawling work that Segerstam is good at taming, and his composer’s ear never lets him down in terms of balance and texture.

The beautifully delicate miniatures entitled Sounding Letters were written for the Russian Alexander Ivashkin (who contributes to the excellent booklet note) and are the exact opposite of the concerto. Gone is the rhetoric and sense of the epic, to be replaced by refinement and limpid delicacy. The change is refreshing.

The four Hymns combine elements of both preceding works. They were written over a period and each dedicated to cellist friends of the composer – Ivashkin again, Karine Georgian (winner of the 1966 Tchaikovsky competition), Heinrich Schiff and Valentin Berlinski from the Borodin Quartet. The pieces play well together as a whole, making an effective cycle full of contrast and variation. Prayer-like modality juxtaposes with dissonant clusters, the particularly Russian traits of chant and bell-like processionals underpinning much of the structure. Above all, Schnittke is able to exploit the thing which links all four works, the characteristics of the cello itself, its huge range and individual cantabile quality. Torleif Thedéen’s performances throughout the disc could hardly be bettered, and the engineers serve him with a typical blend of sonic brilliance and musicality.

This is another clear recommendation for this repertoire and anyone fancying any of the music need not hesitate.

Tony Haywood

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