Schnittke Week – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, Piano Quintet

by 5:4

The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most outstanding composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his music, focusing on works that were included in the Barbican’s ‘Seeking the Soul’ festival, in January 2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isn’t too bad considering.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled with melodic intentions, the quartet’s gestures all concerned with making something from small fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovich’s D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an emotionally neutral term as ‘Andante’ suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the movement, made yet more telling through Schnittke’s frequent rendering of the players in the guise of a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring, although it’s lost within moments; despite being labelled ‘Agitato’, no little time is spent occupied with dark, brooding material. This jaunty opening is pulled into a thousand new forms, showing off Schnittke’s superb ability to vary and re-work existing music. It gives the movement a distinct air of obsession, as though Schnittke was unable to let go of this scrap of melody, endlessly turning it over and around, gazing at it from every possible angle. The final movement (Pesante) starts in laboured fashion, the quartet lurching forward under its own weight. An overt return of the Lasso quotation feels horribly false (laboured in a different sense); far from bestowing any momentum or lightness of mood, it only seems to trigger the work’s unravelling. It plunges into a funereal furrow, from which pizzicato notes are projected like nervous tics, exerts a brief sense of unified desperation, before giving up the ghost.

His String Quartet No. 2, composed a few years earlier in 1980, is a work just as anguished in character. Indeed, its short first movement (Moderato) is like the world’s slowest, most tortured fanfare, laden with dissonances, exacerbated with quartertones. The second movement (Agitato) couldn’t be more different, its fabric initially created from continuous, extremely rapid arpeggios, punctuated with moments of dense counterpoint. A myriad trills follow, suggesting the movement is all about texture, whereupon a melody—shivering, and more than a little grotesque due to the trills—is heard, ushering in a more determinedly melodic episode. These discrete types of material are then thrown together into a dervish like coda, concluding in the manner it began, at an impossible fortissississimo. Sadness sweeps across the quartet in the penultimate movement (Mesto). Po-faced and recalcitrant, the players almost stubbornly express themselves in a stolid, homogenous mass, using only crotchets and quavers. Despite what motion there is, pedal notes in the cello keep the material from sounding as though it’s going anywhere; it’s among Schnittke’s darkest music, like a plainsong for the end of the world. It takes a turn for the nightmarish as both violins launch themselves into melodies that leap up and down almost madly, yet still the cello (and now the viola too) keep the music firmly grounded. Massive repeated downbows, like a formalised screaming, end up consuming the quartet, which collapses from the strain onto a unison C quarter-sharp, segueing into the final movement. Schnittke marks it ‘Moderato’, but almost anything would sound moderate after such a devastating display as the preceding movement. This, however, is moderation in extremis, the quartet muted and reduced to pppp, the simple melody they’re trying to convey having all the power of an asthmatic accordion. Schnittke takes off the muzzle for the final few minutes, triggering memories of the opening of the piece, and, ultimately, a descent into an even more dynamically threadbare realm, the music evaporating out of existence.

Schnittke’s Piano Quintet dates from 1976. Schnittke began work on the piece four years earlier, as a response to the death of his mother, and a sense of grief overshadows the first movement, marked with a plain ‘Moderato’ (Schnittke never gives anything away with his markings). The piano begins alone, making halting attempts at something melodic, seemingly uncertain about which ideas to pursue. When the strings enter, they take up the piano’s initial melody, but hovering at the fringes, only gradually growing in loudness. The piano, momentarily disoriented, regresses into something infinitely darker and more ominous: a repeated high G-sharp underpinned by deep sustained notes; it ultimately overwhelms the quartet, which retreats, leaving it to continue alone, endlessly repeating even beyond the point of audibility (Schnittke indicates the final two bars to be “Silent playing, only the sound of the pressed keys should be heard”). The strings offer an excruciating coda, the melody now contorted into a claustrophobic cluster, concluded with a final ambiguous phrase from the piano. The following movement adopts the manner of a waltz, although its light, rhythmic lilt quickly becomes stodgy and uncomfortable. There’s a playfulness in the strings; although they initiate the waltz idea, they’re quick to assume a subservient role, imitating the piano’s material with a mindless keenness for canons that results in horrendous harmonic clashes. It’s a truly absurd waltz, blurred in all directions: vertically by trills and quartertones, horizontally by cross-rhythms. and yet, there’s a strange, dogged determination to keep up the charade, and thus the music painfully continues, ultimately wearing as thin as the exercise itself. The opening melodic ideas return for the central movement (Andante), and the strings perpetuate their penchant for incessant imitation, although now, with a more individual rhythmic identity. They begin a plaintive counterpoint, but—subserviant once again—immediately pause on the entrance of the piano, opting for stasis whenever it appears. They momentarily assert themselves, and the piano returns to its compulsive note repetitions heard in the first movement. Now, the strings find their voice, and what they unleash is heart-rending, the melody now keening and wailing above the ostensibly unmoved piano, which this time concludes by audibly banging the sustain pedal once the actual notes have ceased. This psychologically-unhinged quality continues into the fourth movement (Lento), the strings beginning almost wraith-like. Before long, the music falls apart into motivic fragments; the remainder of the movement is an attempt to put things back together again. As the ensemble becomes more unified, the effort to lay down a clear, coherent pulse becomes farcical (bringing to mind the waltz from earlier), the piano literally hammering out its crotchets—ironically, all on the off-beat—like a madman. It segues into the final movement, both the title (Moderato pastorale) and initial material of which seems to evoke the last movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. For a time, the piano’s (seemingly senseless) diatonicism is overrun by the chromatics from earlier, but eventually, it’s the simple, bucolic melody that remains, infinitely repeating, once again passing beyond the audible, the final phrase marked ‘soundless’.

These performances were given on 13 January 2001 at St Giles, Cripplegate, by the Keller Quartet with pianist Alexi Lubimov.

String Quartet No. 3

String Quartet No. 2

Piano Quintet

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Martin Walker

Thank you very much – I have only just latched on to these recordings, having somehow “gone off” the composer for a while i.e. a couple of years. I don’t mind the hiss on these recordings at all, as the sound of the instruments is so clearly rendered. These string quartets are a very good port of re-entry. I would be grateful for the name of the quartet(s) performing them, if you still have it/them.


Thanks for this post. You manage to put the music well into words!

I discovered Schnittke’s music a few years back. I am more into his later stuff that the “polystylistic” compositions he became first known for. I especially like the string quartets 2 & 4, the piano quintet, the violin concerto No. 4 and the cello concerto No. 1. The viola concerto is superb too.

There is a harshness and despair in Schnittke’s music, and it’s almost unbearable in too large doses. But there’s also something extremely energising and cathartic about it, too. He grabs you by the lapels like no other composer.

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