> Dmitri Shostakovich - Alfred Schnittke [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Quintet in G major, Op. 57 [1940]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)

Piano Quintet [1972-76]
Constantine Orbelian (piano)
Moscow String Quartet
Recorded in the Great Hall, Moscow Conservatory, May 1991
RUSSIAN DISC RD CD 10 031 [61.32]


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These two pieces make such excellent bedfellows that I’m surprised the coupling is not more common, though as I write this, Naxos have just announced their own recording of the same pairing. The Shostakovich seems to me an unfairly neglected work, considering its instant popularity after the 1940 premiere (the composer with the Beethoven Quartet). It was written in the wake of the Sixth Symphony, and is his last major pre-war piece. It encompasses many of the traits for which the composer is famous; there are the intense, neo-Bachian first and second movements, a playful, heavily ironic scherzo, a pensive, soulful intermezzo, and a finale where probing questions lurk beneath a surface veneer of jovial high spirits.

The artists on this disc seem to understand most of these characteristics, and that elusive balance between seriousness and parody is well caught. The slowly unfolding fugal second movement is particularly impressive, and I like their lightness of touch in the deliciously witty scherzo, where sarcasm and a clumsy, almost brutal rusticity go hand in hand. The piano playing throughout is impressive, and some occasional sour intonation from the string players is hardly off-putting – indeed, one can argue that the sheer rawness of some of this music is far better conveyed here than with an immaculate, plushly virtuosic reading.

The Schnittke also receives an excellent performance, and is, in many ways, a finer work than the Shostakovich. The older composer was clearly an influence, but the real inspiration was the death of Schnittke’s mother, and this produced a directness of utterance that is truly memorable. It is certainly true of Schnittke (and other composers) that some of his best work is in the chamber medium, and this quintet is acknowledged as a key piece. The almost child-like naivety of the opening immediately captures the attention, and this theme is explored with astonishing skill and variety of texture from such modest forces. Schnittke constantly teases the ear with his inventive sonorities; try 3.17 into the pensive andante, where eerie string clusters form a backdrop to a simple piano unison, hypnotically repeated. One can sense the torment and anguish that is finding a musical voice here, and when the tortured sounds finally give way to a finale of almost unbelievable simplicity, one feels a calm resignation, a letting go, that is deeply moving. This is a magnificent work, and this performance certainly does it justice. I can imagine quartet playing of greater variety and depth of tone, but there is a real Russian ‘edge’ that has its own rewards, and the playing of Constantine Orbelian is little short of inspired.

The recording is obviously coming to us from a large empty space, but with fairly close microphone placing, no intimacy is lost, and the balance between instruments is good. Notes are reasonable, though there are typos and wrong timings. But all in all, this is a release well worth investigating.

Tony Haywood

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