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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Piano Quintet, String trio, Fuga for solo violin
Klingende Buchstaben for solo cello
Stille Musik for violin and cello.

 1999 AFCM Ensemble. Irina Schnittke piano, Mark Lubotsky violin, Irina Morozova viola, Julian Smiles cello, Theodore Kuchar viola, Alexander Ivashkin cello, Dimity Hall violin.
 Naxos 8.554728 [69:11]
 Amazon UK

The impressive group of musicians here known collectively as the 1999 AFCM Ensemble, came together to perform at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, North Queensland. If this recording is anything to go by the festival must be an enterprising one indeed. Credit must also be given to Naxos for an enterprising release. I sincerely hope that there are future Schnittke releases in the pipeline which build into a body of recordings as impressive as the now well advanced Lutoslawski series.

Throughout his career Schnittke showed a continued interest and consummate skill in writing for strings, producing a steady flow of works for solo and chamber groups. Here we have five works spanning thirty two years, from the remarkably assured Fuga, written in 1953 when the composer was just nineteen, to the intense String Trio of 1985, the year the composer suffered the first of a series of strokes which were to plague him until his death in 1998.

The Piano Quintet of 1976, which is the centrepiece of the disc, has become one of the composer's best known works. It is undoubtedly a seminal work, demonstrating clearly the "polystylistic" element of Schnittke's music which became increasingly evident in the middle phase of his career. The overriding influence on the character of the work was the death of the composer's mother, as well as, during the latter stages of its composition, the death of Shostakovich whose ghost is evident in the background. In fact both the Piano Quintet and the String Trio are full of ghosts. As Richard Whitehouse points out in his excellent booklet note Mahler, Berg and Schubert are often not far away. The performances of both works are highly committed. The dark, often unsettling nature of the music is caught to powerful effect. The nightmarish second movement of the quintet is particularly effective, the piano part receiving sensitive treatment from the composer's widow (try from around 2'40" where eerie chromatic string writing leads into the haunting waltz melody), whilst in the trio one can actually feel the struggles of the composer trying to come to terms with his material as strands of melody try to assert themselves against the more dissonant backdrop. The passion and dedication of the players to the music is evident throughout.

Of the shorter works on the disc I found Fuga particularly intriguing. Partly due to the fact that upon hearing the work for the first time it is clear, even at the tender age of nineteen, that many of the hallmarks of Schnittke's mature style are already in place (the ghost here is Bach) but also because it is superbly performed by Mark Lubotsky. The remaining two pieces receive equally strong performances although are perhaps a little less memorable as works in themselves.

Overall I have nothing but praise for this recording. As well as the commitment of the playing the sound is vivid (if a little forward), and at budget price I can strongly recommend it to those willing to take a chance and explore new repertoire as well as those who are more familiar with Schnittke. In both emotional and physical terms this is not easy music but given the time for repeated listening the rewards to be had are considerable.


Christopher Thomas



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