Alfred Schnittke/Dmitri Shostakovich: Lento (ECM New Series 1755)



Keller Quartett
András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó violoncello
Alexei Lubimov piano
Recorded June 2000
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Piano Quintet of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) begins where many chamber works might end: with the closing of eyes. It is behind these lids, the shadowy backdrops of which form the projection screen of our deepest mortalities, that the music remains. Even the Waltz of the second movement is a doppelgänger, its higher strings haunting the periphery like an epidemic. Such profound banalities are what make this a harrowing, if somnambulate, work. The piano’s role is very much subdued, providing regularity where there is none to be had. Rarely proclamatory, it reveals its deepest secrets when, at the end of the Andante, the sustain pedal is depressed merely for its metronomic effect in want of note value. The album takes its title from the fourth movement, a viscous, writhing creature that never shows its face. After enduring so many scars, the final Moderato tiptoes ever so gracefully around the fallen shards, gathering from each a snatch of light—just enough for a handful.

Schnittke very much admired the late works of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), of which the String Quartet No. 15, op. 144 cuts deepest. Completed in 1974, two years before Schnittke’s quintet, Shostakovich’s last quartet of a planned 24 consists of six almost seamless Adagios. At 37 minutes, it is the longest of his quartets, if not also the most ponderous. A few shocks interrupt us, as the forced pizzicati of the Serenade, but otherwise we are lulled in the deepening shade of a wilted tree that sways as it ever did at the hands of an unseen breeze. Ironically, the Nocturne provides the earliest intimations of sunrise, throughout which the cello smiles through its tears. A bitter smile, to be sure, but an unforgettable change of expression in the music’s otherwise tense features. We are allowed a single breath before the Funeral March that follows. A tough lyricism pervades, as in cello’s repeat soliloquies, all of which primes us for the cathartic Epilogue, in which is to be had a forgotten treasure, a time capsule buried in childhood and only now unearthed.

Although this is an album drawn in morbidity—Schnittke’s quintet finds its genesis in the death of the composer’s mother, while Shostakovich’s quartet premiered months before his own—it is supremely life-affirming, each work a breathing testament to indomitable creativities. The Keller Quartett, joined by Alexei Lubimov for the Schnittke, lay themselves bare at every turn, wrenching out by far the most selfless performances thus far recorded of this complementary pair.

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