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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Concerto for piano and orchestra (1960) [27:22]
Concerto for piano and string orchestra (1979) [24:46]
Concerto for piano (four hand) and chamber orchestra (1988)* [20:37]
Ewa Kupiec (piano)
Maria Lettberg* (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Frank Strobel
rec. 1-2 November 2005 and 13-15 September 2006, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin Dahlem.
Experience Classicsonline

Alfred Schnittke is often mentioned in the same breath as Shostakovich, yet his music is much less well known. The two men weren’t contemporaries – Shostakovich was 28 years his senior. They both fell out with the Soviet musical establishment, Shostakovich most famously with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936 and Schnittke with his First Symphony in 1972. Schnittke then abstained from a Composers’ Union vote in 1980 and was subsequently banned from travelling abroad. He suffered the first of several strokes in 1985, before emigrating to Germany in 1990, where he died eight years later.
Schnittke the composer never had Stalin to contend with and could never aspire to Shostakovich’s iconic status in the West, where commentators dredged the latter’s works for subversive clues. Testimony, Solomon Volkov’s 1979 biography of Shostakovich, merely added fuel to the fires of speculation. Ironically there was no such frenzy about Schnittke, whose musical idiom – although initially inspired by Shostakovich – fast developed into something much more innovative and daring.
Much of Schnittke’s output was written for the Soviet cinema – one was likely to encounter fewer constraints there – and Capriccio must be commended for recording three volumes of this music with Frank Strobel and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (see reviews of Volume I and Volume II). As for the rest for his œuvre, with the exception of the admirable Bis series, there are surprisingly few recordings available, so this Phoenix disc is especially welcome.
These three concertos fit rather neatly into three decades of Schnittke’s life – they were composed in 1960, 1979 and 1988 respectively – but despite the intervening years they are unified by a distinctively trenchant musical style. As for the performers the Berlin orchestra is familiar enough but the pianist Ewa Kupiec is new to me. That said, she has performed widely in Europe and the UK and has attracted much praise from the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. 
The first concerto is set in three conventional movements – Allegro-Andante-Allegro – but even at this early stage Schnittke’s sound-world is anything but traditional. Yes, the opening octaves on the piano recall Shostakovich but the acerbic writing that follows is surely more reminiscent of Prokofiev. And there’s a bit of black humour, too – just sample that quirky little theme at 2:16. The rest of the movement is declamatory, manic even, the pianist railing against the insistent timps and opposing orchestra.
The sheer power and weight of Kupiec’s pianism is very impressive indeed, but thankfully there’s more to her technique than that; in the spectral Andante – which opens with muted bass-drum strokes – she plays the quieter, more reflective music with plenty of finesse and feeling. But this is no idyllic interlude, the grating brass glissandi that begin at 7:39 sounding like titanic groans. This couldn’t be further from Shostakovich’s sound world; indeed, the huge climaxes that follow surpass anything the latter ever wrote, with the possible exception of his monumental Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’.
Strobel and his Berlin band play this music with precision and a good ear for its grim, uncompromising sonorities. And in keeping with the composer’s unashamed eclecticism there is a jaunty theme at 11:08 that is pure Gershwin. Hot on the heels of that comes a gentle Boléro-like theme with plenty of Ravelian glitter thereafter. The athletic final Allegro reminds me of Prokofiev, the piano writing bright and brittle but always playful. There is a pleasing brevity and point to Schnittke’s writing here that’s irresistible, especially when it unfolds with such alacrity. It’s a wild, psychedelic ride that ends with an ear-drubbing climax.
The spectacular dynamic range of this disc – on both CD and SACD – has to be heard to be believed. In particular the balance between soloist and orchestra – so difficult to achieve – is well nigh ideal. Arguably the piano is a little more forward than it might be in the concert hall but it’s all gain in terms of detail and drive. And in case you think this all sounds too unrelenting the recording has enough warmth and depth to stave off listening fatigue.
The pensive opening to the single-movement Concerto for piano and string orchestra is most welcome, emerging with commendable clarity and naturalness. But it’s only a temporary respite, the glowering bass and note clusters hinting at the more radical Schnittke of the 1960s. That said, there is an interior aspect to the music that comes across as surprisingly intimate. The pared-down orchestra – strings only – sounds weightier than one might expect, especially in the work’s grinding unison passages. Strobel draws impassioned playing from his band, who dig into their repeated phrases with gusto.
Indeed, this is a strangely schizophrenic concerto – sample the jazzy piano and moody bass at 10:16 – that overturns conventions and expectations with astonishing facility. The curious dissonances from 13:29 onwards are a case in point, yet remarkably the composer stitches it all together very convincingly indeed. It all winds down with some wonderfully austere, lyrical playing from Kupiec and ghostly murmurings from the strings. (Wiki’s entry on Schnittke refers to his ‘polystylistic technique’; surely polymorphic would be more accurate, as this continuously evolving score so aptly demonstrates.)
Kupiec is joined by pianist Maria Lettberg for the final concerto on this disc. Written for Schnittke’s wife Irina and Victoria Postnikova, this four hander builds on the sheer percussive strength of Schnittke’s earlier works, with awesome results. Amidst all this raw energy – some will think this is a case of piling Ossa upon Pelion – there are a few snatches of lyricism. The bell-like figures – shades of Shostakovich, surely – are juxtaposed with what can only be described as an Ivesian mèlée of competing musical ideas and rhythms. It’s an extraordinary display but it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Of these three works the Concerto for piano and string orchestra will probably have the widest appeal. It’s certainly been recorded more often that the other concertos here but perhaps this new disc will alert curious listeners to Schnittke’s less-well-known works in the genre. Good production values all round, although Phoenix really must improve the quality of translations in their booklets.
Dan Morgan
And a further view from Rob Barnett ...
This is the first time all three Schnittke piano concertos have been gathered on one CD -  and in stunning sound. The 1979 work has been recorded several times notably alongside the 1988 Four-Hand concerto on Erato with Rozhdestvensky conducting. This was no surprise as the 1988 work had been written for Viktoria Postnikova and Schnittke's wife Irina who are the pianists on the Erato disc. The present Phoenix disc is unique in offering the first recording of the 1960 Piano Concerto revived by Kupiec and Strobel in Berlin in 2005. Germany - his adopted home from 1990 - has been a strong proponent of Schnittke.
The style of the 1960 work differs markedly from that of the other two. It is tonal but by no means pedestrianly epigonic. The just-qualified Schnittke is clearly in thrall to Shostakovich and the stigmata of that composer's contemporaneous Second Piano Concerto can be heard. It is not however quite as populist as the Shostakovich. The two outer movements are pitilessly visceral - an almost relentlessly triumphal pummelling; exciting though and by no means mechanistic. Try this if you enjoy a bubbly broth made up of the Shostakovich, the Mennin Piano Concerto and the great Rozsa film scores of the time: El Cid and Ben Hur. The central movement which has wraiths of the rhythmic drumming of the first movement is more tender and clearly forms the heart of the work. The dissonant single movement concerto for piano and strings strikes compromises with accessibility and early on recalls the tolling minimalism of Spiegel im Spiegel; also heard at 17:41 in the Duet Concerto. It's a sky-heavy, cloud-hung work with some ruthless fast-trudging thunder from both piano and string choir. Intensity and reeking cordite also play their part in this ruthless work. The 1988 Duet Concerto - again in a single movement - also accommodates thunderous dissonance. Great clangorous and unrepentantly angry statements groan with resentment and buzz with tension. This time there is a full orchestra to provide a backdrop to the exertion and complexity of the two pianists at one piano. 
This is a well targeted disc and the ingredients range from fresh yet not supine Soviet triumphalistic romance to pounding dissonance and smoky subtlety.
Rob Barnett


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