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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Quasi una sonata for violin and chamber orchestra (1968/1987) [22:22]
Moz-Art à la Haydn (1977) [11:43]
Suite in the Old Style, arranged for chamber orchestra (1972/1987) [15:49]
Concerto Grosso No.6 (1993) [13:12]
Ulf Wallin (violin); Meri Englund (violin); Tero Latvala (violin); Ralf Gothóni (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta/Ralf Gothóni
rec. December 2003, Tapiola Concert Hall, Finland
BIS-CD-1437 [64:26]



Instantly recognisable from long distance, Bis are to be complimented on their sleeve designs of their Alfred Schnittke Edition. They are also to be complimented on the high standard of each of the recordings in the series; this new issue is no exception.

Quasi una sonata started out life as ‘Violin Sonata No.2’, and it is the 1987 re-working for violin and chamber orchestra heard here. After a dramatic opening G-minor chord which always reminds me of the opening of Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’ the work proceeds on a quest to unify brutal, atonal, aleatoric serialism and moments of bald tonality. Schnittke was later able to call this his first ‘polystylistic’ work, but taking it as a step or more further than the direction already taken by Berg’s Violin Concerto there seem to be relatively few problems with the B-A-C-H motif, or any of the other interpolated shenanigans. Referring to a recording which any self-respecting Schnittke fan will have, the 1986 DG Gidon Kremer/Chamber Orchestra of Europe, this BIS recording has greater refinement and depth in the sound, an excellent orchestra in the Tapiola Sinfonietta, and as persuasive a soloist in Ulf Wallin as any I can name, Kremer included.

Another work which conveniently offers comparison with Gidon Kremer is Moz-Art à la Haydn, which is part of a series of ‘Moz-Art’ works. Each of these works borrows thematic material from Mozart’s Pantalon und Columbine, a piece which now only exists as a single surviving violin part. The theatrical elements of an opening in darkness and the final ‘Farewell’ of the musicians is obviously better served in a live performance, but all of the grotesqueness of Schnittke’s often nightmarish transformations of Mozart are superbly played here. Gidon Kremer and Tatiana Grindenko, who are the dedicatees of this piece, are more shiveringly, shimmeringly ‘in your face’ in terms of making a flautando sound somehow almost aggressive. As violinists, you get the impression that they could hold their own among a crowd of hostile football supporters. Tero Latvala and Meri Englund are no weaklings either, but their playing is more rounded and conventional – they are playing more like Mozart, whereas Kremer and Grindenko are really playing Schnittke. There is a validity to either point of view, and there will always be some who have found those astringent, fork-squeaking-on-dinner-plate DG violins somewhat hard to take. This BIS recording, while unfortunately missing out on a few of the fun theatrical moments of stamping feet and whistling presented on the live DG version, offers the ideal alternative.

The Suite in the Old Style is another 1987 arrangement of a 1972 version for violin and piano or harpsichord. This work holds none of the polystylistic visions of Schnittke’s other orchestral works, being a stylistically coherent pastiche with only occasional forays into idiomatically foreign dissonance or rhythm – fleeting moments which betray the work’s 20th century pedigree. One can easily imagine how this would fit in as film music, for which three of the movements where originally intended, but the effortless way in which Schnittke creates such deceptively easy-going music should not be too easily dismissed. The analogy is passing by the cautiously lit rooms filled with drawings at an art gallery in order to concentrate on the pretty colours of the oil paintings. As an innocuous break in the programme it is the kind of piece from which you can nip out and make a cup of tea without feeling guilty about missing too much, but never make the mistake of passing such work off as facile – ask your local composer.

Having made your tea, you can settle down once again to a final session of serious mental struggle with the Concerto Grosso No.6. In fact this music is demanding, but in its forthright compactness is in no way impossibly difficult. The first movement is a weighty concerto for the piano, with driving rhythmic polyphony and loud dynamics. This is followed by one of Schnittke’s more desolate utterances – a duo between the piano and an expressively impassioned solo violin. The final Allegro vivace brings back the entire ensemble in a colourful and nuance-filled feast which includes morsels from the previous two movements.

To those who know the BIS/Schnittke edition, this issue is self-recommending. Ulf Wallin is a superb violinist, something which is essential in these works. You can never have too much Schnittke, and with such excellent performances and recordings as these you can save yourself ever again needing to look out those scratchy old Melodiya LPs and trying to work out what you are listening to in cyrillic.  

Dominy Clements





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