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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
CD 1
Cello Concerto No. 1 (1985) [40:08]
Cello Sonata No. 1 (1978) [21:15]
Cello Sonata No. 2 (1994) [17:09]
CD 2
Cello Concerto No. 2 (1990) [42:13]
Concerto Grosso No. 2 (1982) [32:29]
Alexander Ivashkin (cello)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valery Polyansky
Tatiana Grindenko (violin – Concerto grosso)
Irina Schnittke (piano – Sonatas)
rec. Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory, 16 January 1998 (Cello Concerto No.2) and 22-25 April 1998 (Sonatas). Mosfilm New Studio, Moscow, 24 March 1999 (Cello Concerto No.1); 24, 26 December 2001 (Concerto Grosso)
CHANDOS CHAN 241-39 [78:40 + 74:42]


Both the Cello Concerto No. 1 and Cello Concerto No.2  have been reviewed before on MusicWeb International, and this double disc set brings Schnittke’s major orchestral works with cello together with the two sonatas, also previously released on a ‘complete works for cello and piano’ single disc. There are of course a number of other significant cello works not included here, so this in no way stakes any claim to completeness, but in the safe and specially priced hands of the Chandos ‘twofer’ label and with the inspired playing of Alexander Ivashkin this has to be a worthwhile collection.

The Cello Concerto No.1 was the first work Schnittke completed after the first of a number of strokes which would eventually prove fatal. Indeed, this first stroke was itself almost the end for Schnittke, and he was clinically dead – his heart stopping three times through the ordeal of the illness. He had started work on the piece in the spring of 1985, and worked on the piece through his convalescence, saying it felt as if he ‘had laid down the pen only yesterday.’ This is in opposition to Ivashkin’s own booklet notes, which have it that Schnittke ‘had forgotten everything and had to start again from scratch.’ Which is the more accurate story I know not, but either way it is a remarkable achievement given the circumstances. The dedicatee, Natalia Gutman, recorded the work in 1991 with the London Philharmonic under Kurt Masur – EMI CDC 7 54443 2, but while the performance is very good, Gutman’s solo cello is rather improbably balanced against the large orchestra in the Abbey Road studio. Ivashkin and the RSSO have the mixed benefit of the Great Hall in the Moscow Conservatory, making for a more atmospheric general impression and a more realistic balance, but with less detail and more acoustic dirt to contend with when all of the percussion’s pots and pans are flying around. The work’s dramatic content comes over very well however, and the impact of the brass is chilling in the extreme.

The Sonata No.1 for cello and piano is one of Schnittke’s most frequently performed works, but this is not to say that it is especially ‘easy’ for player or audience. There are however plenty of resonances which refer symbolically to earlier styles, and with the impassioned and authoritative playing of both Ivashkin and Schnittke’s widow Irina this is very much a recording of importance. Both of the sonatas were recorded in the same Great Hall as the concerto, and once again the acoustic plays a significant role. The piano seems more distant than one might normally expect, and the solo cello, while again realistically balanced, is sometimes almost washed away in waves of notes from the piano. As a recording this has more the feel of a concert registration than an ‘in your face’ studio recording, and it will depend on your taste whether you prefer it to something like the Maria Kliegel recordings on Naxos, or Bis’s more recent release with Torlief Thedéen and Roland Pöntinen. The sparing, atmospheric gloom of the Sonata No.2 is favoured more by the Moscow setting, with the minimal piano writing often providing a mere frame for the pictures painted by the solo cello. The first movement is indeed largely a monologue for the cello soloist, and the while second allows a more sculptural contribution the cello still has the bulk of the expressive content. This was one of the last works Schnittke wrote, and is certainly filled with dark imagery and gloom – the final, timeless movement extending beyond its two minute duration into a kind of infinity.

The second disc covers the vast Cello Concerto No.2 and the Concerto grosso No.2, like the first concerto dedicated to Natalia Gutman with violinist Oleg Kagan, and recorded by them with the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and extravagantly released on two sides of a Melodia LP in 1986. The Cello Concerto No.2 is as much a symphony as a concerto, and this it has in common with a number of Schnittke’s concertos. The battle of the soloist with the huge orchestra is held on a big scale in the second movement, with percussion and massed forces almost literally driving the soloist from the stage. The third is haunting and mystical, Ivashkin pointing out the ‘symbolical idea of a hero and his shadow’ as a typical idea of Schnittke’s later work. Ivashkin also usefully indicates some references to some of the musical forms and earlier works that Schnittke employs throughout, and the performance as a whole is a challenging assault on the senses.

The Concerto grosso No.2 famously has references both à la Bach, and to Gruber’s carol ‘Stille Nacht’ and, while ostensibly appropriating the baroque model of solo concertino and accompanying ripieno, the definitions and borders of both are constantly in a state of flux, the flexibility of the large symphony orchestra allowing for any number of chamber music combinations. This massive and frightening score is given the full works by everyone concerned, and while the perspective on the bass and the harpsichord are a little strange the whole thing has all of the overwhelming power you could wish for.

This is a very welcome ‘2 for 1’ re-release of these recordings. The main current competitors in this market come from a diversity of sources, but Bis’s excellent recordings with Lev Markiz and Leif Segerstam have been something of a benchmark for quite a while now. I don’t have them to hand for direct reference, but my recollection says that, while they might just have the edge for recorded refinement, these Chandos versions have the advantage of that nervous brinkmanship of anarchic Russianness which has to have been what Schnittke had in mind. Take the development towards that lugubrious funeral march in the Pesante second movement the Concerto grosso No.2. At about 1:30 in there is a little knot of string players on the right who nag the soloists at the beginning of each bar like a chorus of naughty kittens, and each moment where the march becomes full-blown – for instance at around 2:07 and especially 2:43, could give any film thriller as much musical gravitas as that of ‘The French Connection’. Those who didn’t buy these recordings the first time around are now fortunate; this set is surely today’s hot ticket into Schnittke’s big works for ‘accompanied’ cello.

Dominy Clements



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