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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Dedication to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitry Shostakovich for piano six hands (1979) [6:17]
Sonata No. 2 (Quasi una Sonata) for violin and piano (1972-1976) [19:23]
Piano Quintet, Op. 108 (1979) [26:42]
Concerto for Piano & Strings (1979) [23:40]
Concerto Grosso No. 4 - Symphony No. 5 (1988) [36:53]
Violin Concerto No. 4 (1984) [28:56]
rec. 1977-90, Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, Russia
MELODIYA MELCD1002630 [145:09]

This two CD set of live recordings was released by Melodiya to celebrate the 85th anniversary of Alfred Schnittke’s birth and all the recordings presented here are appearing on disc for the first time. They are taken from broadcast recordings and show differing aspects of the composer’s compositional style and the Violin Concerto No. 4 is taken from a Gala concert celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Moscow Conservatory.

The first disc opens with Hommage to Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich for piano six hands, which is based upon "Chinese March" from The Nightingale, Humoresque Scherzo and Polka from The Golden Age by the composers named in the title. Based upon the three themes, this work continued the divertissement line of Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn for two violins and string orchestra which was composed two years earlier. This is followed by his Sonata No. 2 (Quasi una Sonata) for violin and piano, a work that the composer would later orchestrate. After years of criticism by the Soviet authorities for his adherence to Schoenberg’s atonalism, Schnittke began to look for a new style which would not attract as many complaints. The result was his polystylistic period and this violin sonata is one of his earliest attempts to write in that style. The result could be said to be a hybrid of both atonalism and his new style, whereby uses various styles to achieve his desired goal. It has a strange, almost defiant opening: a single piano chord followed some seconds later by a violin chord, than after another gap the violin and piano sound a chord together and it is not until after yet another gap that they begin to play longer sections of music. This at first sounds a little disjointed, but you soon become used to it. The music of the Sonata is at times a little challenging, yet rewarding; Schnittke described the work as "a report on the impossibility of a sonata in the form of a sonata." Cast in a single movement, the twenty-minute movement has three main sections, which at times run in to each other, a sonata movement, an adagio, and a fugue.

The two main works on the first disc are the Piano Quintet and the Concerto for Piano & Strings, both of which date from the 1970’s and show a more developed sense of his later style. The Quintet was begun in 1972 as a memorial to his mother who had died of a stroke earlier that year. As such, it is a dark, heavy-textured work which caused Schnittke problems due to its deeply personal undertones and being shelved for four years; it was completed only in 1976. By the time he returned to it, his styles had once again undergone a shift, giving it a more melancholy almost morbid character. The second movement takes the form of a slow waltz based upon B-A-C-H, and is the only polystylistic movement in the work. The other movements, especially the Moderato pastorale finale, could be said to be over-sentimental. Despite this, it has always been one of my favourites of the composer’s works. The Concerto for Piano & Strings is composed in one single extended movement lasting nearly twenty-four minutes and opens with a slow introduction on piano. When the strings join the piano, they play various melodic phrases, some of which are reminiscent of both Prokofiev and Russian liturgical chant, which are then repeated and elaborated upon. This leads into a false climax that leads in turn into a piano solo which is clearly linked to the opening solo introduction. This is followed by more frenzied, ecstatic writing which then leads into the climax proper, with a string quartet playing a mournful refrain as the music ends in a rather ambiguous fashion.

The spoken introduction by Gennady Rozhdestvensky extols the virtues of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 5, and discusses its premiere in Amsterdam; this was the first performance in Moscow. Thankfully, a transcript of the Russian text is provided in English. There are only the two works on the second disc, the first of these being the Concerto Grosso No. 4 - Symphony No. 5 of 1988, followed by the Violin Concerto No. 4 of 1984. The Concerto Grosso is a strange work, offering the feeling of both a concerto grosso and a symphony without really fulfilling the role of either. Composed for a very large orchestra, it is only in the opening Allegro movement that the concert grosso element appears, when the solo violin, oboe and harpsichord are pitted against the orchestra. The second movement Allegretto is partly based upon the of the sixteen-year-old Mahler’s work for Piano Quartet. Here, the harpsichord is clearly in evidence, although it is only used in support of the orchestra rather than as an orthodox solo instrument except for a few instances. The third and fourth movements are both Lento. Rozhdestvensky describes them as “two giant murals that absorbed the emotions and thoughts of our troubled times…[T]he majestic, quiet epilogue of the symphony is a kind of saraband march that takes the characters of this musical drama to eternity.” Indeed, despite the third movement being a Lento, it has some violent, thunderous episodes as it stumbles into an allegro section before returning to its original tempo. The fourth movement, on the other hand, acts more like a menacing Mahlerian funeral march.

The final work on the disc is the Violin Concerto No. 4 of 1984, which here is performed by its dedicatee Gidon Kremer. It was commissioned for the 34th Berlin Festival and performed by Kremer and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. It opens with an Andante, that presents a leitmotif known as the ‘Kremer theme’ which is introduced on bells and is then often repeated throughout the work. It is interspersed with a warmer and more lyrical second theme. The second movement Vivo, in contrast to the first, begins with the solo violin, although there are repeated bell sounds throughout this section. This, once again, leads to a more lyrical passage until as the orchestral sound builds up, the soloist is asked by Schnittke to perform a ‘cadenza visuale’ whereby he apes a cadenza without actually playing. The third movement Adagio is once again quite different, with the soloist pitted against a more baroque-like chamber group in which the harpsichord is once again in evidence, although Schnittke repeatedly interrupts with a more strident theme which is anything but baroque, especially when the brass section come in at about five minutes into the movement. The fourth movement is a Lento and gives the work a cyclical feeling as it introduces music from the previous three movements, including the ‘Kremer theme’, going on to conclude quietly with the soloist being asked to perform another ‘cadenza visuale’.

These performances are excellent; all of the pianists on the first disc deserve special notice and Kremer is his usual, impressive self. Liana Isakadze, the violinist in the Sonata, is equally good. Sadly, I have a problem with the sound, which is occasionally a little thin and left me craving something a little richer and more even; however, the sound of the live broadcasts is more than serviceable and quite good at times, without audience participation. The booklet notes, in Russian and English, are good, including many quotations from the musicians involved. This is a valuable historic document and well worth investigating.

Stuart Sillitoe

Dedication - Alexander Bakhchiev, Viktoria Postnikova, Gennady Rozhdestvensky (piano)
Sonata - Liana Isakadze (violin), Vladimir Skanavi (piano)
Quintet - Eliso Virsaladze (piano), Borodin Quartet
Piano Concerto - Vladimir Krainev (piano), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitayenko
Introductory Words by Gennady Rozhdestvensky [3:07]
Concerto grosso USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky
Violin concerto - Gidon Kremer (violin), Moscow Conservatory Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky

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