More on Alfred Schnittke

Even though I reviewed Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso I, it’s not the only recording I had in rotation.

I was listening to two recordings of his chamber music, in addition to the Kronos’ set of string quartets. His Symphony No. 4 and Requiem are in the wings, but these days I’m not fond of orchestral works. (The way they’re recorded doesn’t allow the kind of immediacy as chamber music.)

I would have liked to review them all, but I would be repeating myself. So instead, I’m relegating the other recordings in a round-up.

Chamber Music: Piano Quintet (Tale String Quartet, Ronald Pötinen, piano)

Epilogue: Works for Cello and Piano (Torleif Thedéen, cello; Roland Pöntinen, piano)

The Piano Quintet, written to commemorate the passing of Schnittke’s mother, is a fairly sparse work, withdrawn and almost hesitant. But toward the end of the fourth movement, the piano and string quartet clash till they dissolve into the lyrical final movement. Storm and stress, indeed.

The String Trio rivals the third quartet in terms of displaying Schnittke’s mastery for unifying contrasts. Melodies and tonal chords emerge seamlessly from what can be at times a harmonic morass, but these moments aren’t just mere juxtapositions — they make sense in a way only Schnittke could devise.

After a series of strokes left the composer frail, Schnittke’s later works turned more contemplative, and he returned to a more serial style of writing. He stopped composing in 1994 and died in 1998.

Sonata No. 2 for Cello and Piano, Improvisation for Solo Cello and Piano Quartet demonstrate this more solemn style. Any hint of his polystylistic technique is a distant memory.

He does leave room for his more catholic (with a lower-case "c") interests. Musica Nostalgica, from 1992, lives up to its title, indulging in very Russian themes and traditional contrapuntal techniques, while Epilogue, from the ballet Peer Gynt, is quite melodic.

The Complete String Quartets of Alfred Schnittke (Kronos Quartet)

Most of Schnittke’s four quartets were written in the ’80s. Like the quartets of Bela Bartók, they chart the stylistic progress of their creator. The first quartet, written in 1966, is deeply serial. The second and third quartets were done in his polystylistic manner, while the fourth found him returning to serialism.

Kronos fans will be familiar with the recordings of the third quartet and an arrangement of Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief — both were recorded for previous albums, and neither needed reinterpretation.

I can’t tell if its familiarity that gives the third quartet such appeal — it’s the work I’m most familiar — but his quotation of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuga brings out that piece’s forward-thinking. Oddly enough, I heard Schnittke’s quotation before I heard the actual Grosse Fuga, and I can’t listen to Beethoven’s original without hearing Schnittke’s harmonies.

The Russian themes in the second quartet scream above the cloud of harmony, and even the serial works come across as more melodic than they ought to. Kronos chews the hell out of these pieces, tackling them with the impressive aplomb they did with the string quartet by Witold Lutoslawski.

It is, however, a lot of Schnittke to digest in one sitting, and it requires some degree of commitment. It took me 10 years to give this recording a fair shake.