Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)

Concerto Grosso No.1 (1977) [28’13]
Concerto Grosso No.5 (1990-91) [27’35]
Quasi una sonata (1987) [21’55]
Gidon Kremer (violin), Tatiana Gridenko (violin)
Yuri Smirnov (harpsichord, piano and prepared piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Concerto 1 and sonata)
Heinrich Schiff and Gidon Kremer (conductors)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Concerto 5)
Christoph von Dohnanyi
Rec. Kammermusiksaal, Berlin, Sept. 1998 (Concerto 1 and sonata), Grossersaal, Musikverein, Vienna, Nov. 1991 Live (Concerto 5) DDD
DG 20/21 ECHO 471 626-2 [77’54]


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For a single representative disc of Schnittke’s unique sound world, you could do a lot worse than this DG re-issue. His hugely entertaining Concerto Grossi span his mature creative life (there are at least six), and critics often point listeners new to the composer to these pieces. It’s easy to see why. This is quintessential Schnittke polystylism, an almost psychedelic mix of baroque and modern, where drastic juxtapositions of mock-Vivaldi and mock-Berg produce an aural experience that is both exciting and disturbing.

Fans of the composer may already be acquainted with a two of the performances re-packaged here. Concerto Grosso No.1 and Quasi una sonata were originally released by DG in 1990, coupled with the slight but entertaining Moz-Art à la Haydn. This new reincarnation is better value, giving us the extra, substantial Concerto Grosso No.5 to make a very well filled disc.

Although it had been recorded before, general consensus was that this version of No.1 swept the board. It won many friends when it was re-issued on an excellent, cheap DG Classikon disc, coupled with Lutosławski and Ligeti, so another re-issue may cut out a sector of the market who are not prepared to duplicate. Those who do not already possess it will be quite happy with the present disc. The performance features long-standing Schnittke collaborators (particularly Kremer and Schiff), and is played with a panache and abandon that is invigorating. The evocative Prelude is eerily atmospheric, and the marvellous Toccata, a wild re-creation of Corelli and Vivaldi, is launched by the two virtuoso violinists as if their lives depended on it. There really is something for everyone here, which is probably why this particular piece has become so popular. He throws everything into the ring; weird chord clusters and swooping glissandi rub shoulders with snippets of nursery rhyme and, at 2’38 into track 5 a section which, to quote the composer, is "my grandmother’s favourite tango played by my great-grandmother on a harpsichord". This work is also credited with introducing the prepared piano into Russian music, and it plays a vital and effective role in the texture. The recording is excellent, with even the closely miked violins not being too problematic. The original release stated this was a live recording. There is no mention here of that, and if it is, then the audience was unbelievably attentive and courteous.

Concerto No.5 is definitely live (shuffling and coughing from the outset). It is still enjoyable, a very different experience to No.1. The baroque parodies are less obvious here, and the pivotal role of the ‘invisible piano’ (actually an amplified off-stage instrument) give the work more connection with grand solo concertos of the 19th Century, once again filtered through the Schnittke kaleidoscope. The second movement is a big cadenza, the superb artistry of Gidon Kremer here really coming to the fore. Schnittke has been lucky that a whole generation of first-rate, high profile musicians (Kremer, Schiff, Bashmet, Lubotsky, Holliger, Rozhdestvensky) have allied themselves to his cause. It gives the performances a real feeling of being the definitive article.

Quasi una sonata started out life in 1968 as a piece for violin and piano, the orchestral version coming in 1987. Schnittke often referred to this as a breakthrough piece, probably because it was written at a time when his original creative voice was emerging from what he called "the puberty rites of serialism". He certainly let his imagination run riot, the end result being a little sprawling and undisciplined. It hasn’t the aural impact or diversity of the Concerti, but is a very welcome filler, and is very persuasively played.

The liner notes are good, and the whole re-packaging of the new Echo series is attractive. It worries me that one of the main items has been (or still is?) available on a super budget disc, but I guess DG are hoping to attract new listeners to modern music with this series. Let’s hope they succeed.

Tony Haywood


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