SCHNITTKE Piano Quintet. Piano Quartet
The Piano Quintet is one of Schnittke’s darkest, most haunting works. It takes existential angst to a pitch at which Shostakovich and Mahler would have given up, and then, miraculously, resolves it in a stunningly simple apoetheosis. While the work has in some sense an arguably fuller expression in its orchestral reworking as In memoriam, the sheer intensity of this chamber version is utterly gripping, and the combination of the young Greek pianist Erato Alakiozidou and the Lutosławski Quartet is electrifying. They treat the music with reverence, certainly, but they are also not afraid to mould it, to take it and make its very personal pain their own. It is not every pianist who can make the obvious waltz-like gestures of the second-movement Tempo di valse resonate as Alakiozidou does, and not every string quartet who – and here one thinks of the intensity of the Penderecki of the 1960s – can bring such tension to a cluster resolving on to a unison.
More than this, there is a sense of the overall shape of the work, an awareness of the details that go to make up the whole, that is truly astounding – one of the most amazing moments is the descent into sheer blackness at the end of the third movement, with the sudden shaft of light provided by a simple major chord. Odradek’s magnificent recording has much to do with this, of course, but such a breathtaking performance would, I think, survive in a much worse acoustic environment. My one reservation has to do with the balance of the piano and the string quartet in the last movement (something which is in any case better achieved between organ and orchestra in the reworking): the piano seems a trifle overwhelmed too soon. But it’s a small quibble. The brief 1988 Piano Quartet is a fight between Schnittke and Mahler, upon whose incomplete work for this medium it is based. Schnittke wins, of course, but the earlier composer casts his shadow over the whole work.
Complementing the two Schnittke works is the piano quartet In l’istesso tempo by Giya Kancheli. A work of elegant mournfulness, it is the perfect companion here, and performed with tremendous sensitivity. This is a recording of extraordinary quality, the brillance of the performers’ insight being fully matched by the outstanding quality of the sound, and there are excellent booklet notes by Hugh Collins Rice.