One never knows what kind of a surprise is in store when listening to the music of Russian avant-garde composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). His work is wildly erratic, sometimes completely lost and seemingly inconsequential and other times feverishly brilliant. He remained a bit of an eclectic all of his life, from time to time reminding me of George Rochberg, but where Rochberg makes his conversion to a different style he tends to stick with it, while Schnittke lets the differing styles coexist in a parallel universe, with much mingling of the time zones through a sort of musical black hole. It is never unusual to be hearing a vast modernist canvass only to he interrupted by a distant cry from another era, not unlike a séance where a departed voice is struggling to get back to the world of the present and the living. But Schnittke also has a way of bringing these ghosts into the limelight, so that they become as real and relevant as the current moment; indeed, we are often not sure what time period we are living in when a Schnittke work is being played.
This album is an important one, bringing together all three of his extant piano and orchestra pieces, the earliest one having just appeared a few years ago, a concerto from his immediate post-school years when he was only 26. It is a solo concerto of great conviction, hinting of Ravel in its chordal brilliance, Gershwin in its languorous slow movement, and a jazzy Prokofieff in the finale. This work should be taken up in the concert halls immediately.
The second concerto is a piece for piano and strings, much more modern in its approach in that there are a plenitude of contrasting elements that play off one another, such as quiet triads challenged by swirling string configurations. All in all, a dialog of great intensity and conflicting tonal tenets that somehow find a way to coexist. The last concerto is for piano four-hands, and as you might expect, finds a great degree of thickened ivory sound in the contradictory stance of an instrument that by nature speaks with one voice yet also suffers internal conflict when dialoging with itself. Even in the orchestra each wind instrument gets to voice its opinion only once, and the trademark Schnittke harmonic tradeoffs between then and now are apparent everywhere.
This one really took me by surprise. Pianist Ewa Kupiec plays these works with an unbridled authority while Mr. Strobel’s Berliners seem to enjoy every moment. This is superb SACD sound, with a realistic and brilliant piano tonal quality and evenly distributed orchestral signals. Go for it, and be not afraid of Schnittke.
— Steven Ritter