Russian-born Modern Contemporary composer Alfred Garyevich Schnittke [1934–1998] wrote four string quartets. According to Wikipedia, which has much information on his style, nearing the end of his life, Schnittke toned down some of the more abstruse characteristics of his early works, essentially becoming mellower. The Fourth Quartet was written in this period. Three of the five movements in the piece are marked lento.

The work opens a in a lento tempo with a rumbling, earthy arco cello sound. Pauses appear in this passage and the cello gathers strength each time they occur. Slowly two violins enter with long tones – this is very sparse as the cello occasionally offers up a phrase. Now two violins can be heard for one harmonised note, and then another, as the movement gradually settles on a sense of form. Some micro-tones can be heard, and the violins create dissonant, longing harmonised phrases that often end in glissando. I believe that I can hear four instruments but the sparsity is still palpable. Now a shrill violin cuts through the music, first soaring and then moving through a delicate, descending melodic line, which passes other instruments on the way down. The music limps to a conclusion.

I should mention that this movement is almost inaudible for much of the time – I remastered it for the purposes of review. Also, the timbre of the ensemble has a strangeness about it, as if the digital sound of the music has been processed in some manner.

The next, allegro movement opens in a similar manner, with a droning cello. This time however there is pizzicato and sweeping violins aplenty. Dissonant, harmonised violin lines are variously, subtle, then powerful. Aggressive chordal interjections and micro-tonal dissonances are salient. Now a change comes with a gentle lento passage, where the violins express measured melodies against a background of ever increasing dissonance. The rhythm returns and the violins become energised. A low cello drone briefly makes an appearance but is soon swamped by the violins’ endeavours. An extremely strong section ensues with great dissonance, and an aggressive nature. Sometimes I don’t quite know what I’ve let myself into in this confronting musical atmosphere… The end is a dissonant violin duet of several bars.

The next movement, again marked lento, has a morose feeling of two violins expressing long tones. A pizzicato section is transformed into a shrill violin, accompanied by further long tones as it returns to its middle register. Dissonance prevails for a time and the energy recedes, leading to a gentle passage, similar to a section from the first movement. Following a pause, a fuller ensemble sound is heard, but this does not last. Now it is pure rubato, with sparse violin lines occasionally interrupted by a pizzicato stroke. The two violins murmur together for a few moments before concluding.

A slightly entropic dialogue introduces a vivace tempo. The mood is very modern and there are a lot of different textures presented in this brief movement, with a stilted tempo persisting for some time. Now a pizzicato section unfolds, which leads to a sustained dissonant chord to end.

It is with a little trepidation that I approach the final lento movement, which runs for just over 15 minutes. Strange dissonant chords, somewhat reminiscent of Charles Ives, create an introduction that gradually moves into a deep atonal section where lines seem to jump out at random. Slowly the music builds to a crescendo, before dropping back to subtle violin statements, in a low register. One violin takes the lead and carries the movement forward with some impetus, basically without a tempo. This passage continues for a considerable time before pausing. The next music heard is a bleak soundscape with occasional violin statements together with periods of silence. An extremely dissonant chord appears but provides no lasting influence and several instruments can be heard, but not much music, with a sustained period of held tones lasting for some minutes. A return to the previous stasis occurs, as violins reach out between significant pauses. This is another bleak soundscape but I am not drawn to it. Now some activity can be heard, although the pauses still occur frequently. Fluttering violins, sometimes in duet, make for a desolate sound. The conclusion comes as a fade into 30 seconds of silence.

I have to say I don’t know what to make of all this, particularly the final movement – this music is just a barren sound to me. There also seems to be an underlying ambient hum on the recording. I don’t think it was my remastering, maybe it was recorded live. In any event, I reiterate that there are some incredibly soft sections on this recording and it features a vast dynamic range, which I find difficult.

The review 2-CD set, Schnittke: String Quartets, 1-4 performed by the Molinari Quartet on the ATMA Classique label is available on Amazon US and UK. There is also a complete version by the Kronos Quartet, which is now only available as Used and New.

The Molinari version is on Spotify. Both the Molinari and Kronos are on earsense and there is an unidentified version on YouTube.

Listenability: Quite intimidating – not for the faint-hearted.


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