Schnittke, Shostakovich: Piano Quintet

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schnittke,Shostakovich
LABELS: ECM
WORKS: Piano Quintet
PERFORMER: Alexei Lubimov (piano); Keller Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 461 815-2
What a coupling! Schnittke’s desolate Piano Quintet, a memorial to his mother, is followed by Shostakovich’s last quartet: six slow movements, all in a minor key – a kind of ‘Six Last Words’ from the bedside of a dying man. The combination reads like an invitation to the darkest spiritual territory. To convince an audience that the journey is worth making – that one is going to be the better for it – requires a lot more than musical competence.

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The Keller Quartet and pianist Alexei Lubimov are certainly more than efficient. There’s no holding back in the lacerating one-note crescendos in the ‘Serenade’ movement of the Shostakovich and countless moments of similar expressive violence in the Schnittke – well, squeamishness is the last thing one wants in either work. What I miss is the almost painful tenderness the Borodin Quartet and Ludmilla Berlinsky find in Schnittke’s final Moderato pastorale (Virgin), and which the four members of the Shostakovich Quartet bring out to something like perfection in the long exposed solos of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth (Olympia). Boldly, the Keller has opted to play much of the long ‘Elegy’ that begins the latter in a bleached, almost vibratoless tone. The control is remarkable, but the effect is to make the music cold and smooth like a sheet of glass – an effect heightened by the brightly reverberant recording. The viola solo in the ‘Nocturne’ shows the players can do expressive warmth and subtly beautiful phrasing – so why not at least hint at it in that crucial first movement? Stephen Johnson