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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
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186485 [52.16]

Michael Cookson’s review covers much of the background to this release, and like Kirk McElhearn I’m left free to provide some personal ramblings. One of many treasured box sets in my re-purposed fireplace, The Ten Symphonies of Alfred Schnittke on BIS-CD-1767/68 is rather special, and the performance of the Third Symphony with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Eri Klas remains a stunning reference. This disc couples the Third with the Seventh Symphony by the way, while it stood alone on the original release on BIS-CD-477.

With luxury packaging and added SACD enhancement this Pentatone release oozes quality, and while there are time when forensic clarity is not always necessarily the best thing when Schnittke is generating his fields of sound, there is a refinement of balance in this recording which results in even more spine-chilling effects in the first movement. Eri Klas sets up a pulse towards the end of this first movement which is rather machine-like, the softer-toned bass guitar and less insistent tubular bells and percussion in Jurowski’s version sounding less like an Eastern-Block foundry. The weight of the organ is greater as well, and the climax at 10:00 is breathtaking.

The second movement Sonatensatz is rich in witty and surreal classical-musical allusions, and Jurowski is a little more measured in tempo when compared to Klas. This allows more atmosphere to be created by those mournful brass chorale interjections, and the urgent interruption of the second section is terrifically exciting. The harpsichord in the third minute is more present as well, and there are new details to be discovered and relished in just about every moment. Check out the organ at 6:05, and there is an all-round feeling of high-octane virtuosity about the playing which I have to say beats the competition by quite a margin.

Rock-distortion opens the Scherzo with high-tensile impact, the addition of a sweet-sounding instruction of Allegretto something of a joke amidst the dark sonorities and Ives-like mixture of harmonic and stylistic material which rolls over us like an implacable military tank. The heavy passacaglia-like nature of the third movement melts into a mournful continuation in the fourth, marked Finale. Adagio. This is the kind of heartrending stuff which makes me want to down tools and go off to become a sheep farmer. Schnittke may have wanted to signal the redundancy of the symphony as a musical form in the 20th century, but at the same time he was indeed our very own Gustav Mahler, at least in the emotional character conveyed by the deepest gestures of this movement.

This release is a must-have for Schnittke fans, and even for those who possess the BIS recording. Good as this is, the Pentatone version surpasses it in every respect, with an emphatically wonderful performance recorded in state of the art clarity. This is a release capable of communicating the compelling shocks and intensity of feeling unique to a composer who threw down a gauntlet encrusted in pearls with clenched teeth.

Dominy Clements

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson (Recording of the Month) and Kirk McElhearn


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