Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
String Quartet no.3 (1983) [20:01]
String Quartet no.1 (1966) [18:45]
String Quartet no.2 (1980) [21:29]
String Quartet no.4 (1989) [38:07]
Canon in Memoriam Igor Stravinsky, for string quartet (1971) [4:58]
Molinari Quartet (Olga Ranzenhofer (violin); Frédéric Bednarz (violin); Frédéric Lambert (viola); Pierre-Alain Bouvrette (cello))
rec. Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, Quebec, June 2010. DDD
ATMA ACD2 2634 [60:15 + 43:55] 

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 review 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 most others.
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

Schnittke the modernist - acrid chromaticism, atonality, serialism, pointillism - little here to appeal to those with mainstream-inclined tastes.