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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Piano Quintet (1972-76) [27’42"];
Piano Trio (1992) [29’18"]
* Barbican Piano Trio: Gaby Lester (violin), Robert Max (cello), James Kirby (piano), with Jan Peter Schmolck (violin on Quintet) and James Boyd (viola on Quintet).
Recorded 6 August and 23 November 2000 at St. Georges, Brandon Hill, Bristol. DDD *
BLACK BOX BBM1093 [57’03"]

One of Schnittke’s masterpieces, the Piano Quintet was written following the death of the composer’s mother. It covers a wide range of emotions, now despairing, now somewhat mock-happy in the manner of Shostakovich, and ultimately landing on a plain of transcendence that is almost childlike in its imagery. In preparation for listening to this recording, I revisited a number of others, since this particular opus is well represented in the catalogue. The estimable ensemble Capricorn has a fine one (on Hyperion), as do Mark Lubotsky and Irena Schnittke, the composer’s wife (Sony). And another recent one popped up in the shop just this week, with the Moscow Quartet and Gary Graffman (Fine Arts) from around 1998. It’s good to see this piece given the adulation (i.e., performances) that it deserves.

The Quintet begins with a mournful piano solo, that later escalates into a repeated, struck note that sounds more dire with each repetition. To my ears, this is grief incarnate, a driven, almost senseless cry for the pain to stop. The little waltz that insinuates itself later is also more painful than not. Only in the final movement, when the pain subsides into a broad, mellow chords in the strings, with a gentle tinkling of the piano – almost like a music box – is there any perception of some kind of lessening of the initial intensity.

This performance by the Barbican Piano Trio is very fine, with special guests Jan Peter Schmolk on violin and James Boyd on viola. The group plays with unwavering feeling and finesse, showing a sensitive ear for the work’s shifting moods and general unease.

The Piano Trio is also one of the composer’s finest works, and again, although a number of other versions are happily available, this one will do just fine. It was originally written for violin, viola and cello, to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of Alban Berg’s death in 1985, but rewritten in 1992 to include piano. The work is cast in two movements, and from the very first chords, the ghosts of Beethoven and Schubert hang in the air, albeit swirling around with Schnittke’s more piquant harmonies as if filtered through Shostakovich. Some of the movement even sounds like Haydn – well, sort of. This is one of the composer’s most clear experiments with what sound like Baroque cadences, but of course with his characteristic astringency.

For comparison, I checked the world premiere recording of the Piano Trio from 1993, featuring Irina Schnittke, the composer’s wife. The Sony project is faster, a bit more flowing than the somber Barbican reading, but I might prefer the latter’s sobriety just a bit more, and the Black Box recording is even finer-grained. In short, this is an outstanding addition to the Schnittke canon. As the years pass since the untimely death of this extraordinary composer, we are lucky to have so many of his masterworks archived with such excellent performances and recordings.

Bruce Hodges

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