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Schnittke: String Trio; Prokofiev: Violin Sonata No 1, 5 Melodies / Blacher, Kussner, Moser, Lobanov

Prokofiev / Schnittke / Blacher / Moser
Release Date: 01/31/2012 
Label:  Phil.harmonie   Catalog #: 6019  
Composer:  Alfred SchnittkeSergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Walter KüssnerKolja BlacherJohannes MoserVassili Lobanov
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHNITTKE String Trio. PROKOFIEV Violin Sonata No. 1. 5 Melodies Kolja Blacher (vn); Walter Küssner (va); Johannes Moser (vc); Vassily Lobanov (pn) PHIL.HARMONIE 06019 (67:52)

You never know what to expect from Alfred Schnittke, which of his multiple styles or combinations of styles will make its appearance in the work at hand. Although I am not a particular fan of late 20th-century music, I find this two-movement string trio, written in Read more 1985, quite compelling. Alex Ross, in Fanfare 20:2, called it “one of Schnittke’s greatest works.” I’m not familiar with all of Schnittke’s output by any means, but of those works I have heard this is one of the most satisfying. Commissioned as part of a commemoration of the 100th birthday of Alban Berg, the trio has stylistic features reminiscent of that composer. The notes for this disc suggest that the piece could be characterized as “metamorphoses on an Austrian Ländler,” although I doubt that such references would be apparent to the casual listener (if in fact one can listen casually to Schnittke). It is quite noticeable that the work opens with a rhythmic motif suggestive of “happy birthday to you,” and that this motif recurs repeatedly later in the score, although often in a distinctly macabre and non-celebratory guise. On the other hand, there are no jazz improvisations or anachronistic quotes or parodies from much earlier composers, features that occur in some other Schnittke works. Here the loud music is searingly expressive rather than merely noisy, the style neither outrageously raucous nor blandly traditional. The composer powerfully exploits the rich, massed sonority these three string instruments can produce but also scales back the sound for some eerie, haunting, intimate passages, as in the opening pages of the second movement. It is altogether a harrowing, emotionally engaging piece.

The EMI recording that Alex Ross reviewed enthusiastically features Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, and Mstislav Rostropovich, and is still available as an on-demand reissue from ArkivMusic. As close associates of the composer as well as renowned exponents of their instruments, these performers are self-recommending in such repertoire. But the German musicians on the disc under review here are by no means eclipsed by their more famous Russian counterparts. In general, the Russians are more flowing and lyrical, the Germans firmer and more aggressive. The Russian players take nearly a minute longer to traverse the Moderato first movement. Their smooth, plush, yet transparent sonority contrasts with the more massive and slightly abrasive timbre of the Germans, which renders explosions of dissonance all the more shocking, and the climaxes of the first movement are a good deal more violent in the German performance. In the ensuing Adagio, it is the Germans who are more deliberate, attenuating their sonority to produce a chilling sense of desolation in the hushed music that occupies much of this movement.

Vassily Lobanov, a Russian pianist living in Germany since 1990, joins violinist Kolja Blacher for the Prokofiev works. The sonata, begun in 1938 but completed only in 1946, is brilliant in technique but dark and threatening in atmosphere, colored by the horrendous period of history from which it emerged. It received a Stalin Prize, despite clearly not conforming to the tenets of Socialist Realism. The Blacher-Lobanov duo has the technical resources needed to meet this work’s considerable demands and delivers a precise, cleanly executed performance without sacrificing expressivity and dramatic power. Blacher plays with solid, robust tone, firm pacing, and varied vibrato. He may not exhibit the refinement and nuance of such performers as Gil Shaham, with Orli Shaham (Canary Classics), or Shlomo Mintz, with Yefim Bronfman (DG), but he exceeds them in intensity and forcefulness, and neither of them can match him for tonal weight. Pianist Lobanov contributes a dark coloration, frequently emphasizing the left hand. In the first movement, urgency and determination are evident from the outset, building to a sense of outright menace. But these musicians can play with tender sensitivity as well, as in the Andante third movement, where they produce an appropriately mystical, hypnotic quality while traversing the movement more quickly than the other two duos mentioned. In this work, notwithstanding the claims of other performers, it would seem essential to have at least one of the several recordings by David Oistrakh, who advised Prokofiev on technical matters during the composition process and was the dedicatee of the resulting piece. The one I know, a March 1972 Moscow concert performance with Sviatoslav Richter that was issued by BMG/Melodiya and MHS, is of riveting intensity and unsurpassed ferocity. It is apparently unavailable at present, but a recording by these two iconic musicians from the Salzburg Festival later that same year is available on Orfeo. That version received a rave review from David K. Nelson in Fanfare 22:3.

The Five Melodies (the term here used in the French sense, meaning art songs or Lieder) are a 1925 reworking of a set of pieces originally written in 1920 for wordless soprano voice and piano. Contrasting sharply with the pungency and menacing atmosphere of the sonata, these brief pieces are predominantly lyrical and sometimes suggestive of Debussy or Ravel. Blacher’s firmly paced, comparatively deliberate and angular performance here emphasizes the modernistic content of the work, such as it is. Shaham takes a more relaxed and flexible approach, with a more legato and a more burnished tone. Oistrakh, in a 1967 recording with Frida Bauer (Melodiya), is closer to Blacher in angularity and firmness of tempo, although at a quicker overall pace. He also uses noticeably more vibrato than either of the others.

Blacher and his colleagues have been given excellent recorded sound, almost of SACD quality, with impressive solidity and impact as well as freedom from harshness. Notwithstanding strong competition in the repertoire involved, this disc merits an enthusiastic recommendation.

FANFARE: Daniel Morrison
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Works on This Recording

Trio for Strings by Alfred Schnittke
Performer:  Walter Küssner (Viola), Kolja Blacher (Violin), Johannes Moser (Cello)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1985; USSR 
Sonata for Violin and Piano no 1 in F minor, Op. 80 by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Kolja Blacher (Violin), Vassili Lobanov (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938-1946; USSR 
Melodies (5) for Violin and Piano, Op. 35bis by Sergei Prokofiev
Performer:  Kolja Blacher (Violin), Vassili Lobanov (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1925; Paris, France 

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