A Cathartic Schnittke from the Brentanos and Solzhenitsyn  


United StatesUnited States Haydn, Schnittke, and Mendelssohn: Brentano String Quartet, Ignat Solzhenitsyn (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 3.5.2015 (BJ)

 Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 50 No. 1, Hob. III:44
Schnittke: Piano Quintet
Mendelssohn: String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 12


String quartets can make their sonic impact in a variety of ways. At one extreme, there are groups in whose tone one is struck most forcibly by the powerfully contrasted individuality of tone displayed by the four constituent musicians. The Brentano String Quartet (named for Antonie Brentano, who may or more likely may not have been Beethoven’s “Immortal Beloved”) is an example of the opposite extreme. Without in any way diminishing the strength of the personal insights violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violist Misha Amory, and cellist Nina Lee bring to each of their parts, the ensemble sound through which these perceptions are channeled to the listener is of an unusual and compelling unanimity.

The Haydn quartet that began the group’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society program demonstrated this quality in the strong cogency with which its textures were integrated, and which lent contrasting zest to moments like the closing measures of the minuet’s trio section, where the two violin parts are split into giddily alternating eight-notes that were played with full appreciation of the composer’s signature sense of humor. No less impressive was the performance of the mature E-flat-major quartet that demonstrates—like many other works—how wide of the mark was the old-fashioned view of Mendelssohn as a gifted but essentially lightweight composer. This is deeply serious and emotionally gripping music, diversified by a lighter-textured Canzonetta that seems prophetic of the dance-like movements with which Mahler offered listeners a break from the textural complexity of the surrounding movements in his Second and Third Symphonies.

There was little such lightness to be found in the Piano Quintet of Alfred Schnittke, for which the quartet was joined by pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn. I am not an admirer of the late Russian composer’s music in general—the polystylism he often practiced tends to be distracting rather than involving—but this profoundly expressive work of the 1970s, a commemorative response to his mother’s death, is the finest Schnittke piece I have so far encountered.

For much its five movements’ length, the quintet sets the almost monolithic texture of the four string parts—ideally suited to the cohesiveness I have suggested to be the Brentanos’ dominant tonal characteristic—against intermittent, dark-hued, and often gnomic utterances from the piano. There is a certain affinity in the music’s brooding atmosphere with Shostakovich, but it is innocent of that composer’s penchant for irony: this is dark, inwardly grieving stuff, and no mistake.

For a long time, the two radically contrasted textural and expressive elements in the piece seem fated never to coalesce in any mutually sympathetic way. But the Lento fourth movement manages to steer the participants in the direction of real communication with each other, and the lighter atmosphere of the finale that follows sets a supportive string accompaniment under relatively unshadowed phrases in the piano. These seem like distant echoes of the corresponding movement in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: Schnittke’s “Moderato pastorale” marking for the movement may have been intentionally suggestive of that parallel.

Both as pianist and as conductor, Solzhenitsyn is an established master at interpreting music of such powerful emotional content. His playing, formidably sonorous and then, as the music’s demands evolved, caressingly lyrical, conspired with the equally intense and persuasive playing of the Brentanos to create a truly cathartic musical experience. It was one that makes me eager to explore In Memoriam, the orchestral arrangement of the quintet that Schnittke made at the urging of his close friend and champion, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky; it is available on the BIS label in a recording by Lev Markiz and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra.

Bernard Jacobson

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