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
1936 and Schnittke with his First Symphony
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
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
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
). 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.
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.
first concerto is set in three conventional movements – Allegro-Andante-Allegro
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.
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
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’.
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
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.
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.
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
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.)
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
these three works the Concerto for piano and string
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.
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
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
; 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.
is a well targeted disc and the ingredients range from
fresh yet not supine Soviet triumphalistic romance to pounding
dissonance and smoky subtlety.