Schnittke; Schoenberg; Webern String Trios

A special disc bringing together some of the finest string trios of the 20th century

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Schnittke; Schoenberg; Webern String Trios

  • String Trio
  • String Trio
  • Movement (Sehr lebhaft)
  • String Trio

In 1949, a few weeks before his 75th birthday and three years after composing his String Trio, Schoenberg recorded a short radio talk to go with its first broadcast. Carefully reading his prepared text in good English (it is also printed in the booklet), he provides some pithy yet far-from-unambiguous thoughts about modernity in music. What, one wonders, would he have made of Alfred Schnittke’s contribution to the genre, written to mark the centenary of Alban Berg in 1985, and even more explicitly redolent of vanished Viennese culture (Mahler as well as Berg) than Schoenberg’s own waltz-haunted score?

By placing Anton Webern’s two finely conceived compositions, written in the 1920s, between Schoenberg and Schnittke, this disc juxtaposes what are probably the most characterful string trios from the entire 20th century, with Schoenberg’s four-minute talk a valuable bonus. Webern comes off best in these hyper-intense, rather over-resonant recordings, with the balance between lyricism and drama, and between dance-like and more fragmented rhythmic patterns, generally well realised. The Schoenberg needs less of the overwrought deliberation these players bring to it, as well as more precise control of the crucial dynamic contrasts and textural cues about principal and subordinate lines that pepper the score. The Schnittke also suffers from sounding too heart-on-sleeve; with so little restraint it becomes difficult to separate pathos from parody. Schoenberg would probably have deplored the music’s “folkloric” qualities, while admiring Schnittke’s determination to rethink rather than reject tonality. Other readings might be more persuasive about the essential differences between these works: but any disc which brings them together deserves serious attention.

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