Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934 - 1998)
Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra*
Moderato - Agitato - Andante
Sonata No.2 "Quasi una Sonata"**
A Paganini for solo violin

Levon Ambartsumian, Violin
Anatoly Sheludyakov, Piano**
*Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra/Mikhail Kukushkin
Recorded: Georgia, USA 2001
PHOENIX PHCD 150 [57:46]


This excellent disc includes some of Schnittke's most accomplished violin works. His pieces are not instantly accessible - their eclecticism can be disconcerting - but his fragmented use of many familiar forms and stylistic ideas is easy to follow (the concerto and sonata on this disc both remain rooted strictly in a classical form). However, these polystylistic structures are complicated further by Schnittke's flexible 20th-century approach to tonality - these in turn causes the harsh dissonances that are at first apparent.

Schnittke's use of 'polystylism' poses an interesting philosophical argument: he argues that, in the modern age, 'our concepts of time and space have undergone drastic transformations' and therefore the 'idea of the universal character of culture, of its integrity, seems particularly apt'. Schnittke has a point: in an age of rampant globalisation and international communication, a degree of cultural fusion is bound to occur, and his composition can be seen as a statement of this.

With this in mind, the Violin Concerto No. 3 does not seem especially avant-garde; the wind textures of the first movement Moderato often resemble Strauss, and dissonance is caused mainly by the violin line grating against the orchestral harmony. The Agitato second movement feels appropriately uncomfortable, and the forceful, unsettled temperament always pushes the piece forward. The writing becomes intensely anguished as it dissolves into the third movement, Andante, which is the focal point of the Concerto; the opening drone notes of the soloist are deeply haunting, and are precursors to the dark, foreboding ending, where Schnittke reveals an altogether more ominous compositional voice. The Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra are immaculate throughout, and Michail Kukushkin elicits from them an enchanting sense of subtlety and nuance. The same can be said for soloist Levon Ambartsumian, who echoes and leads with integrity, sensitively alternating between the solo and accompanimental voices that Schnittke's writing demands.

After such a volatile work, Sonata No. 2 (thoughtfully subtitled 'Sensa tempo') is something of a contrast. This was Schnittke's very first polystylistic experiment, and it contains a range of searing contrasts and unexpected (gimmicky?) dissonances - isolated moments that seem almost designed to shock and provoke the listener. An enforced struggle between harmony and disharmony ensues; this is Schnittke's metaphor for the conflict between the musical styles of the past and present respectively, and it is significant that the sonata never finds a conclusive centre in one tonality or another. Schnittke takes this concept further by introducing themes of Liszt (the B-A-C-H motif which Liszt adapted), and Beethoven (from Variations, Op.35) then tainting them with atonality, in order to '[rule] out the possibility of pure harmony in today's disjunct world'.

It is unfair to judge a violinist on the harsh sonorities of Schnittke alone, but the virtuosic playing of violinist Levon Ambartsumian (b.1955) is outstanding. As a prodigy of the former Eastern Bloc, Ambartsumian's reputation is confined mainly to Eastern Europe, and although since 1988 he has toured in Europe and taken residence in the USA, he is largely unknown in the West. On this disc, his sound is often intense, suiting the harshness and dissonances of the writing, yet he also finds room for moments of tenderness. The virtuoso requirements of the sonata and A Paganini are faultlessly executed with apparent ease.

A Paganini is a witty and mischievous piece with which to end the disc. A juxtaposition of harsh chords and snatches of melody from the 24 Caprices of Paganini, it is a nightmarishly dissonant take on the great violin maestro's devilish composition, and an appropriately unnerving note on which to end.

Simon Hewitt Jones

See also review of Shostakovich CD, Phoenix PHCD 151, conducted by Levon Ambartsumian. SOON

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