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CD Review

Alfred Schnittke

  • "Concerto for Three" for Violin, Viola, Cello, Piano & Strings
  • String Trio
  • Minuet for Violin, Viola & Cello
  • Canon "Alban Berg an das Frankfurter Opernhaus"
Gidon Kremer, violin
Yuri Bashmet, viola
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello
Moscow Soloists Ensemble
EMI CDC 55627
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As cellist Mstislav Rostropovich says, "With Alfred Schnittke, it's impossible to predict what comes next." This compelling CD is typical of much of Alfred Schnittke's chamber music: ironic, unpredictable, annoying, intriguing. The String Trio, commissioned by the Alban Berg Foundation for Berg's centenary, was modified into a piano trio seven years later. Schnittke's mantra-like repetition of the Happy Birthday tune is a brilliant stroke, particularly when the tune begins to dissolve. He enhances the effect with Bergian pathos throughout the piece. Sometimes it dips briefly into a romantic wellspring, where it lingers until shattered by ominous chords. As performed by Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, and Mstislav Rostropovich, the String Trio is a dynamic piece, more appealing than its piano trio clone because of its tonal density.

Schnittke's string transcription of Berg's Canon is a dense moody composition, not particularly dramatic, but performed with delicacy and restraint. Kremer imbues the piece with a rich coloration that adds a dash of hope to this powerful dirge.

This world-premier performance of the Concerto for Three begins with a fugue-like passage, only to change character several times before its conclusion. Sometimes it is a showcase of solo passages, as the three instruments banter back and forth; other times, they wander aimlessly. Concerto for Three, despite its talented performers, is not a stirring, ironic, or even an eloquently morose piece. The showy finale is moderately amusing, although not profound. The three instruments squabble with each other until a jarring note from a piano ends it all, like a pail of water thrown on a dogfight.

The second world premier, the three-minute Minuet, is a delightful example of Schnittke's polystylism. It is unclear whom or what he is satirizing – Mozart perhaps? The minuet form itself? Whatever the case, its skewered, off-key melody creates images of drunken, late night dancers with smeared faces. It is a wonderful pastiche and, as Mozart would say, contains just as many notes as necessary.

Copyright © 1998, Peter Bates