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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Six Preludes for Piano (1953-54) [18:25] *
Dialogue for cello and ensemble (1967) [12:55] **
Yellow Sound, after Vasily Kandinsky (1974) [34:54] ***
Magdalina (1977) [7:53] ****
Variations for string quartet (1997) [4:10] *****
Drosostalitsa Moraiti (piano)*, ****; Alexander Ivashkin (cello)**, *****; Ensemble Pentaèdre de Montréal **;Nelly Lee (soprano) ***; Bolshoi Soloists’ Ensemble ***; Liora Grodnikaite (soprano) ****; Oleh Krysa (violin) *****; Natalia Lomeiko (violin) *****; Konstantin Boyarsky (viola) *****; Jeremy Bell (conductor)**; ; Alexander Lazarev (conductor) ***
rec. 30 May, 2009, Council Chamber, Deptford Town Hall, London. *; 1 Dec, 2006, Lazaridis Theatre, Perimeter Institute, Waterloo, Canada. **; 6 January, 1984, The Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, Soviet Union. ***; 29 June, 2009, Royal Opera House, Choir Studio, London, UK. ****; 30 April, 2000, The Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London, UK. DDD *****
TOCCATA TOCC0091 [68:18]

Experience Classicsonline

Russian-German composer Alfred Schnittke is notoriously difficult to place in the development of twentieth century music. On the one hand he loved the traditions of Vienna, of whose musical life he always proudly felt himself an integral part. On the other he experimented with novel (but hardly new) forms … his polystylism meant that he incorporated idioms from earlier periods of music than his own - notably the Baroque. He was also influenced by Shostakovich. Falling foul of the Soviet regime's musical narrow-mindedness, Schnittke eventually withdrew into a (musical) world of bleakness and, perhaps, terminal desperation.
This CD from Toccata is a selection of five works that stretch across Schnittke's career … from the early 1950s to a year before his death. Significantly, none is currently otherwise available in the catalogue. All of them deserve to be better known; all are likely to be welcomed by devotees of Schnittke and those new to his distinctive sound and musical worlds. What's more the standard of performance on this generous CD is uniformly high - despite the fact that each work has a different set or sub-set of musicians.
Six Preludes for Piano is the earliest work here dating from 1953-4 while Schnittke was studying at the Moscow Conservatory. Melodic and almost orchestral in feel, they illustrate the composer's interest in nineteenth century Romantic composers and their influence on him. Drosostalitsa Moraiti's playing of them is perceptive - particularly in respecting that very outmoded style which they represent - without degenerating into pastiche.
Dialogue for cello and ensemble was completed in 1967 and was originally conceived as a full concerto. Instead, Schnittke decided to explore the variety of timbres of the instruments of the ensemble … flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, piano and percussion. This is fully in keeping with Schnittke's polystylistic interests and his fascination with the contrasts between sounds and styles. Alexander Ivashkin's cello does indeed present a persuasive dialogue with the soloists of the Ensemble Pentaèdre de Montréal. Their emphasis is on more than the role of soloists interacting as in chamber music; it suggests something of greater individuality than a chamber orchestra; nor is it a backdrop for the cello. On the other hand, the players are not acting as a unison ensemble. In fact, they're foregrounding - as Schnittke intended - the individual sounds of each of the instruments. Behind the angularity of Schnittke's bursts and punches is a calm lyricism, the balance of which is maintained largely by Ivashkin's clear sense of direction.
Yellow Sound (1974) was inspired by Vasily Kandinsky's (1866-1944) interest in the relationship between sound and colour. The artist mounted what we would now call multi-media presentations to which Schnittke was obviously drawn. This piece is based on Kandinsky's Der gelbe Klang (Yellow Sound) in a revised Russian version of the original German. It's different from the experiments by the likes of Scriabin (in whose work Schnittke was nevertheless interested) to 'match' colours and sounds. The model here is more one of the stylistic 'counterpoints' between the various arts - like today's multimedia, indeed. Again, the playing is convincing and manages to capture some of the intrigue and sense of the new which must have permeated the work's first performance in 1975 - but with only the music. The version on this CD is that used at the first staged performance in the presence of the composer. There is a lot of atmosphere; that it's live and somewhat raw is attested to by the rather forward recording of some of the instruments, notably the violin, piano and clarinet. The longest work on this CD, it's well worth staying with it to sense the commitment of the players and singers.
Magdalina (1977) is the second work here for voices. But a short one. This must be because, to keep the poem's essence, Schnittke had to respect its length. Originally the composer wanted to set all the poems from Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which he had first read over a decade earlier; but he withdrew all but Magdalina. Its articulation needs a delicacy, intimacy and sense of the ephemeral and fragility to reflect Pasternak's melancholy. These are exactly the qualities which Liora Grodnikaite (soprano) and Moraiti bring to it: they make a world from a miniature.
Variations for string quartet was only completed in 1997, and is one of Schnittke's last works. Indeed, it was written using his left hand only - the result of a series of strokes. Even shorter, it surely represents a Beethovenian quest for simplicity at the end of Schnittke's life. To have its full effect, the playing which we hear and which is our only effective insight into the composer's state of mind must be distilled, expressive and pared down to the same minima of selfless balances between certainty and uncertainty, hope and despair as must have been in Schnittke's mind when he composed them. In fact cellist Ivashkin with Oleh Krysa and Natalia Lomeiko (violins) and Konstantin Boyarsky (viola) achieve this effect with great sensitivity. Alongside their spontaneous-sounding entries and tutti come real concentration and focus. It's a dense work that will have you reaching for the 'Repeat track' controls again and again. Once more, the first violin seems to be miked more closely than the other instruments. But the beauty and transparency of the music more than compensate for such things. Their performance unassumingly picks up the music and sets it gently in the palms of your hands to examine like a child with a crystal. No maudlin. But every note tended with care as the dying Schnittke must have hoped for.
The CD comes with a short but genuinely informative booklet containing brief background to the works, the texts of Yellow Sound and Magdalina in Russian and English as well as lengthy notes on the performers. The recording and acoustic vary with the five locations used but are all more than adequate. Warm and forward, they help to convey the intimacy and immediacy of this music. If you're new to Schnittke, this might not be the most conventional place to start to become familiar. But it's nevertheless a good one. If you're a collector, the fact that these works are available only here now and are so persuasively performed mean it's a 'must'.
Mark Sealey

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