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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Symphony No. 3 (1981) [52.16]
Tobias Berndt (organ), Heike Gneiting (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. 2014, Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin; Seifert organ, St. Matthias-Kirche, Schöneberg, Berlin, Germany
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186485 [52.16]

Michael Cookson’s review of this same recording here on MusicWeb International says a lot more than I could every say about the work and its background. However, approaching this recording as a Schnittke novice, I find myself quite astounded by the density of this Third Symphony. This is a massive work for 111 musicians, including organ, harpsichord and electric guitar, which, at times, seems formless, and at others, has an Ivesian sound, with a juxtaposition of many styles and forms. There is much in the liner-notes about how the composer weaves the names of 28 Austro/German composers in this music – in the manner that Bach wrote his name in the Art of Fugue but all that background information tells nothing about the music itself.

I have heard few musical works that contain as many multitudes as this symphony. It is resolutely modern – composed in 1981 – yet it lacks that specious modern sound of music that could almost be generated by chance ... and sometimes is. Schnittke seems to be both a mystifier and a master musician. In a 2004 article, Alex Ross called him a 'Connoisseur of Chaos', and this Third Symphony contains sections that are as chaotic as, say, Ruggles’ Sun-Treader, but others that have a Mahlerian musicality. Schnittke seems to be quoting nearly every composer in the history of western music; an exaggeration but at times, certain phrases, textures, or orchestrations recall specific composers. The opening which quotes Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the occasional Mozartean riff; the Mahlerian sound here and there; it is almost as though James Joyce had composed a symphony.

Pentatone give us excellent sound quality, something that is truly essential for a recording of this type, with such orchestral density. It’s interesting to note that the organ was recorded separately from the orchestra. I understand that recording an organ in a work of this scale is technically quite difficult, and this approach allows the engineers to ensure that the sound remains balanced.

Schnittke is definitely an acquired taste. Michael Cookson, in his review, called this recording of the month, and said it would be “undoubtedly be one of my 2015 Records of the Year”. As someone new to this music, I can only say that if you want to hear a challenging orchestral work, performed impeccably, this disc is for you.

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.

Previous review: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month) ; Dan Morgan (high-res download)