Schnittke, Shostakovich: Piano Quintet, Op. 57

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COMPOSERS: Schnittke,Shostakovich
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Piano Quintet, Op. 57
PERFORMER: Boris Berman (piano); Vermeer Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554830
The coupling of these two piano quintets, each pivotal to their composer’s respective careers, is an apposite one. Shostakovich and Schnittke share a similar preoccupation with exploring images of bitterness, melancholy and loneliness that find ultimate release either in gentle nostalgia or ethereal simplicity. Fortunately Boris Berman and the Vermeer Quartet prove to be extremely sensitive to the emotional demands of each work, giving highly accomplished and committed performances in adequate, if somewhat studio-bound sound.

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Not surprisingly, competition is fierce. In the Shostakovich, I have always much admired the 1996 Borodin Quartet performance with Elisabeth Leonskaja for its boldly drawn contrasts in colour, dynamics and tempo. Admittedly Leonskaja’s tone is more brittle than Berman’s, and she is perhaps less technically secure in the scherzo. But the Borodin is more imaginative than the Vermeer in the shaping of melodic lines, and attains greater levels of intensity.

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In the Schnittke, Berman and the Vermeer again face comparison with the Borodin Quartet, this time its 1991 recording with Ludmilla Berlinskaiay (Virgin), one of the most compelling performances on disc. However, Berman and the Vermeer are no less effective in projecting the eerie and hypnotic aspects of the work, and I find their approach far more powerful and moving than a rival Naxos recording with the composer’s widow Irina and assorted Russian and Australian string players. Erik Levi