There have been surprisingly few recordings of Schnittke's four
String Quartets. A decade ago the Kapralova Quartet - they do
not bother with diacritics - recorded this very same programme,
Canon and all, but omitting the Second Quartet to squeeze it
all onto a single disc (review).
In the late Nineties the Kronos Quartet had released their complete
Schnittke Quartets, not without hoopla, on Nonesuch (79500).
Nearly a decade before that the Swedish Tale Quartet had released
their account of the Quartets on BIS (CD-467), but at that time
the ink was still wet on Schnittke's Fourth. Apart from that,
the Canadian Molinari
Quartet's competition lies in various recordings of individual
works, most notably of the Fourth by the Alban Berg Quartet
- for whom it was written and who gave the world premiere: see
of their triple-disc '20th Century Masterpieces' collection.
The Tale, Kronos and Kapralova all have their own strengths
and particularities, but all are knocked into a cocked hat,
broadly speaking, by these readings by the Molinari Quartet.
It was founded by violinist and sole surviving founder member
Olga Ranzenhofer in 1997, and named after the Canadian abstract
painter Guido Molinari, who before his death in 2004 even 'designed'
a logo for the Quartet - a small square divided into blue, yellow,
red and green quarters.
Additionally one of the sharpest-dressing quartets in North
America, the Molinaris might be forgiven for using the post-modern
ploy of attempting to conceal musical inadequacies behind a
puffed-up image. In fact, they have no need to do so, because
their musicianship is as exclusive and discerning as their tailor.
Nevertheless, though at times as physical as any, their vision
of Schnittke is more lyrically expressive, emotionally intense
but more introverted, altogether less typically 'primeval' than
The Molinaris begin their recital with the Third Quartet, presumably
on the grounds that it is a little more 'popular', which is
to say accessible. The semi-neo-Classical Third should provide
considerable enjoyment for anyone comfortable with the quartets
of Shostakovich or Martinů. However, it is fair to say
that nearly all this music reflects Schnittke the modernist
- acrid chromaticism, atonality, serialism, pointillism are
all present - meaning that there is little here to appeal to
those with mainstream-inclined tastes. Yet these are not by
any means screech 'n' drone works: Schnittke's Quartets occupy
an important place in late 20th century repertoire and an initial
familiarisation with the Third could well give the majority
of listeners painless access to the other three, from no.2 via
no.4 to no.1.
The Molinaris’ repertory is large, but entirely made up
of 20th and 21st century works, beginning with Bartók
and Schoenberg. Their first disc for ATMA was Canadian composer
R Murray Schafer's first seven Quartets (ACD2 2188-89), hardly
a straightforward listen - or play. Schafer went on to act as
judge in the roughly triennial Molinari Quartet International
Competition for Composition, which has received 600-plus new
quartet scores in its first decade - an astoundingly impressive
achievement. Winners of the first three Competitions have had
their works recorded by the Quartet and released on ATMA (ACD2
2286, ACD2 2323, ACD2 2368).
Sound quality is very good - well-balanced and warm. The CD
booklet, which waverers can download for free here,
is neat and clean. Irène Brisson's notes on the works
are informative and well written, not to mention well translated.
The inside track-listing gives the date of the Fourth Quartet
erroneously as 1983, but this is corrected elsewhere.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk