Schnittke: Piano Trio; Piano Quintet

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schnittke
LABELS: Black Box
WORKS: Piano Trio; Piano Quintet
PERFORMER: Barbican Piano Trio; Jan Peter Schmolck (violin), James Boyd (viola)
With Schnittke’s music, so much depends on the performance. Played with biting intensity the piled-up dissonances, the explosions of raw brutality and sad dislocated clichés communicate a sense of desolation rarely equalled even in modern music. But if the performers don’t pile in as though everything depended on it the music can just sit there, leaving you puzzled – or just irritated. That’s not quite what I felt listening to the Barbican Trio in Schnittke’s 1992 Piano Trio, but although the performers do audibly work at this music, there’s still a sense of it falling expressively short of the target – greyness instead of devastation, simmering indignation in place of boiling rage. The Piano Quintet fares better: the strings now attacking their accents with something closer to abandon. But it’s still a relatively muted affair beside the Borodin Quartet and pianist Ludmilla Berlinsky on Virgin. Part of the problem is in the recording, which places the piano too far behind the strings. But Berlinksy has more incisive power than the Barbican’s James Kirby, and she clearly goads the Borodins on to greater fury. She also is more persuasive in the faux naïve passages, like the slowly tinkling music box tune in the finale of the Quintet – the musical equivalent of the newsreel image of a child’s toy lying in the ruins of a bombed out house. This left me feeling rather bleak – but with the wrong kind of bleakness. Stephen Johnson