Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Stephen Habington
Classical Music Sentinel, October 2009

The Phoenix is rising. Phoenix Edition is new to North American distribution and the initial offering of releases has been impressive. In modern music, a disc of the piano concertos of the late Alfred Schnittke can also be highly recommended. It features pianist Ewa Kupiec with keyboard support from Maria Lettburg and the RSO Berlin under Frank Strobel. Phoenix Edition 103 is a Hybrid SACD. Schnittke’s music provides a sharp contrast to the eclectic style of Henze but is no less worthy in these exciting performances.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, April 2009

These three concertos fit rather neatly into three decades of Schnittke’s life—they were composed in 1960, 1979 and 1988 respectively—but despite the intervening years they are unified by a distinctively trenchant musical style. As for the performers the Berlin orchestra is familiar enough but the pianist Ewa Kupiec is new to me. That said, she has performed widely in Europe and the UK and has attracted much praise from the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski.

The first concerto is set in three conventional movements—Allegro-Andante-Allegro—but even at this early stage Schnittke’s sound-world is anything but traditional. Yes, the opening octaves on the piano recall Shostakovich but the acerbic writing that follows is surely more reminiscent of Prokofiev. And there’s a bit of black humour, too—just sample that quirky little theme at 2:16. The rest of the movement is declamatory, manic even, the pianist railing against the insistent timps and opposing orchestra.

The sheer power and weight of Kupiec’s pianism is very impressive indeed, but thankfully there’s more to her technique than that; in the spectral Andante—which opens with muted bass-drum strokes—she plays the quieter, more reflective music with plenty of finesse and feeling. But this is no idyllic interlude, the grating brass glissandi that begin at 7:39 sounding like titanic groans. This couldn’t be further from Shostakovich’s sound world; indeed, the huge climaxes that follow surpass anything the latter ever wrote, with the possible exception of his monumental Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar’.

Strobel and his Berlin band play this music with precision and a good ear for its grim, uncompromising sonorities. And in keeping with the composer’s unashamed eclecticism there is a jaunty theme at 11:08 that is pure Gershwin. Hot on the heels of that comes a gentle Boléro-like theme with plenty of Ravelian glitter thereafter. The athletic final Allegro reminds me of Prokofiev, the piano writing bright and brittle but always playful. There is a pleasing brevity and point to Schnittke’s writing here that’s irresistible, especially when it unfolds with such alacrity. It’s a wild, psychedelic ride that ends with an ear-drubbing climax.

The spectacular dynamic range of this disc—on both CD and SACD—has to be heard to be believed. In particular the balance between soloist and orchestra—so difficult to achieve—is well nigh ideal. Arguably the piano is a little more forward than it might be in the concert hall but it’s all gain in terms of detail and drive. And in case you think this all sounds too unrelenting the recording has enough warmth and depth to stave off listening fatigue.

The pensive opening to the single-movement Concerto for piano and string orchestra is most welcome, emerging with commendable clarity and naturalness. But it’s only a temporary respite, the glowering bass and note clusters hinting at the more radical Schnittke of the 1960s. That said, there is an interior aspect to the music that comes across as surprisingly intimate. The pared-down orchestra—strings only—sounds weightier than one might expect, especially in the work’s grinding unison passages. Strobel draws impassioned playing from his band, who dig into their repeated phrases with gusto.

Indeed, this is a strangely schizophrenic concerto—sample the jazzy piano and moody bass at 10:16—that overturns conventions and expectations with astonishing facility. The curious dissonances from 13:29 onwards are a case in point, yet remarkably the composer stitches it all together very convincingly indeed. It all winds down with some wonderfully austere, lyrical playing from Kupiec and ghostly murmurings from the strings. (Wiki’s entry on Schnittke refers to his ‘polystylistic technique’; surely polymorphic would be more accurate, as this continuously evolving score so aptly demonstrates.)

Kupiec is joined by pianist Maria Lettberg for the final concerto on this disc. Written for Schnittke’s wife Irina and Victoria Postnikova, this four hander builds on the sheer percussive strength of Schnittke’s earlier works, with awesome results. Amidst all this raw energy—some will think this is a case of piling Ossa upon Pelion—there are a few snatches of lyricism. The bell-like figures—shades of Shostakovich, surely—are juxtaposed with what can only be described as an Ivesian mèlée of competing musical ideas and rhythms. It’s an extraordinary display but it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Of these three works the Concerto for piano and string orchestra will probably have the widest appeal. It’s certainly been recorded more often that the other concertos here but perhaps this new disc will alert curious listeners to Schnittke’s less-well-known works in the genre.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, October 2008


One never knows what kind of a surprise is in store when listening to the music of Russian avant-garde composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). His work is wildly erratic, sometimes completely lost and seemingly inconsequential and other times feverishly brilliant. He remained a bit of an eclectic all of his life, from time to time reminding me of George Rochberg, but where Rochberg makes his conversion to a different style he tends to stick with it, while Schnittke lets the differing styles coexist in a parallel universe, with much mingling of the time zones through a sort of musical black hole. It is never unusual to be hearing a vast modernist canvass only to he interrupted by a distant cry from another era, not unlike a séance where a departed voice is struggling to get back to the world of the present and the living. But Schnittke also has a way of bringing these ghosts into the limelight, so that they become as real and relevant as the current moment; indeed, we are often not sure what time period we are living in when a Schnittke work is being played.

This album is an important one, bringing together all three of his extant piano and orchestra pieces, the earliest one having just appeared a few years ago, a concerto from his immediate post-school years when he was only 26. It is a solo concerto of great conviction, hinting of Ravel in its chordal brilliance, Gershwin in its languorous slow movement, and a jazzy Prokofieff in the finale. This work should be taken up in the concert halls immediately.

The second concerto is a piece for piano and strings, much more modern in its approach in that there are a plenitude of contrasting elements that play off one another, such as quiet triads challenged by swirling string configurations. All in all, a dialog of great intensity and conflicting tonal tenets that somehow find a way to coexist. The last concerto is for piano four-hands, and as you might expect, finds a great degree of thickened ivory sound in the contradictory stance of an instrument that by nature speaks with one voice yet also suffers internal conflict when dialoging with itself. Even in the orchestra each wind instrument gets to voice its opinion only once, and the trademark Schnittke harmonic tradeoffs between then and now are apparent everywhere.

This one really took me by surprise. Pianist Ewa Kupiec plays these works with an unbridled authority while Mr. Strobel’s Berliners seem to enjoy every moment. This is superb SACD sound, with a realistic and brilliant piano tonal quality and evenly distributed orchestral signals. Go for it, and be not afraid of Schnittke., October 2008

The three piano concertos by Alfred Schnittke (1934–1998) are very different from each other and date to very different times in his compositional life. The first, written in 1960, is the only one using a standard piano-and-orchestra approach and the only one in the traditional three movements—slow-fast-slow. Even at age 26, though, Schnittke was finding his own way in music; this was before he started writing film scores, the type of music for which he is best known. The 1960 concerto is well put together and fairly demanding of the pianist (Schnittke himself had studied piano); its middle movement is its heart, lasting as long as the first and third put together. Still, there is a strong whiff of Shostakovich in this concerto—a scent that had largely disappeared by the time of the concerto for piano and string orchestra. This is a one-movement work that somewhat uneasily mixes polyphony, parody, and such mid-20th-century favorite elements as pounding chords and tone clusters. Ewa Kupiec plays it (and the other concertos) very well, but whether this 1979 piece hangs together or seems disjointed will largely depend on the attitude the listener brings to it. Finally, there is the four-hands concerto, which Schnittke wrote for his wife, Irina, and for Viktoria Postnikova. This is a somewhat more introverted work than the earlier concertos, although not as bleak as many pieces Schnittke wrote later in life. The piano parts are cooperative rather than competitive, and the concerto as a whole is expressive and moving, abetted by Frank Strobel ‘s sensitive conducting and by excellent SACD sound.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group