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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: Preludes, Magdalina),
Alexander Ivashkin (cello: Dialogue, variations),
Ensemble Pentaèdre de Montréal/Jeremy Bell (Dialogue)
Nelly Lee (soprano: Yellow)
Bolshoi Soloists’ Ensemble/Alexander Lazarev (Yellow)
Liora Grodnikaite (soprano: Magdalina)
Oleh Krysa (violin) Natalia Lomeiko (violin) Konstantin Boyarsky (viola (Variations)
rec. 30 May, 2009, Council Chamber, Deptford Town Hall, London (Preludes) 1 Dec, 2006, Lazaridis Theatre, Perimeter Institute, Waterloo, Canada (Dialogue) 6 January, 1984, The Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, Soviet Union (Yellow) 29 June, 2009, Royal Opera House, Choir Studio, London, UK (Magdalina) 30 April, 2000, The Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London (Variations). DDD
TOCCATA TOCC0091 [68:18]

This review follows on from Mark Sealey’s comprehensive write-up of this disc from 2010. I hadn’t expected it to re-appear on the review circuit but here we are again and why not indeed?
For those of you who know Schnittke’s remarkable symphonies, concertos and other later works the sheer sweetness of some of the Six Preludes may come as a surprise. Firm tonality, some Mussorgsky-like cragginess and some quite perfumed romanticism are all part of the mix here, with the student Schnittke exploring technique and styles in the eclectic way he would retain for many of his later works. Having been warmed up with tones related to Rachmaninov and Scriabin, the distortion of tonality with quarter-tones of the solo which opens Dialogue are all the more disorientating. This is a live recording but well produced and with a well-behaved audience, and with its heightened sense of timbre and polystylistic content this is more the radically stimulating Schnittke we have come know and appreciate. The cello part has plenty of virtuoso fireworks but can sometimes takes on the role of a human voice, emoting amongst a thicket of instrumental characters who can attack aggressively or create momentary moods of utter stillness, if never serenity.
More noisy as a recording, Yellow Sound takes on the relationships between sound, colour and form which fascinated Vassili Kandinsky throughout his life. There is plenty of bumping around on stage, as well as some mild electric buzzing amongst the circuits and the recorded balance isn’t perfect, but this is the kind of ‘event’ piece, with plenty of strange effects and a mixture of scenic musical atmospheres which lends itself to closing your eyes and allowing the imagination free rein. The booklet notes describe the conceived appearance of some of the stage scenes, but I’ve not been able to find any photos to help us out in this regard. In any case the music is mostly strong enough to stand alone, and there are some very striking passages and never a really dull moment, even in a 35 minute piece in which you know there is lots going on but can see nothing.
Magdalina was Schnittke’s only setting of a poem by Boris Pasternak, despite plans for an entire cycle. With Doctor Zhivago banned in the USSR even such a setting can be seen as a kind of rebellion, though Schnittke’s reasons for withdrawing it from the premiere concert was that the music didn’t match the standard of Pasternak’s poetry. It remained unpublished and unperformed for three decades, and with the text given in the booklet we can now follow the composer’s fascinating interpretation of a gripping and powerful text.
The final piece, fragile to the point of pain, is one of Schnittke’s final works, written while crippled after a series of strokes. Said to represent a search for a ‘new simplicity’, it is the kind of work which stands like an icon - direct in expression but no doubt full of layers of meaning at which we can only guess - a leap of faith in music which returns to an almost child-like naivety. The recording loses some of its lower frequencies for some reason, which leaves the poor cello a bit stranded, but this also adds to the refractive nature of gestures which seem to exist in a darkness ready to swallow them up at any moment.
I would agree that if you are just embarking on your Schnittke voyage of discovery then this is probably not the best place to start. The BIS label has a wealth of marvellous recordings, including a ‘6 CDs for the price of 2’ box of all 10 symphonies on BIS-CD-1767/68 which is a bargain not to be missed. Covering every period of Schnittke’s creative life, this Toccata release is also one no collector true should be without.
Dominy Clements

Previous review: Mark Sealey