Schnittke died on August 2 of this year, age 63, after a decade and a half of failing health. Over the past five years or so I've come to love much of his music, and it's a great loss for the world.
This Kronos release occurred just before Schnittke's death. Prior to this, the closest thing to a survey of the complete string quartets of Schnittke was a 1989 recording by the Tale Quartet on BIS, which included the first three quartets. The Alban Berg Quartet commissioned and recorded String Quartet No. 4 (1989), but that recording's deletion from the catalog leaves, I believe, only this Kronos version. (The Alban Berg Quartet has lately been reexamining its recording output, so it's likely we'll see their Schnittke again.) The Kronos release also includes the Canon in Memory of I. Stravinsky and their arrangement of the second movement (Collected Songs Where Every Voice Is Filled with Grief) of Schnittke's Concerto for Mixed Choir (1985). The String Quartet No. 3 on this disc originally appeared on the Winter Was Hard release of 1989.
The string quartet's role in the careers of many composers, from Haydn and Beethoven to Schoenberg, Shostakovich, and Carter, is paralleled in Schnittke's quartet output. Simply writing for string quartet implies a direct confrontation with the medium's history, much more so than with any other medium. Other ties to the tradition include Schnittke's three- four- or five-movement forms and balanced part-writing. In String Quartet No. 1 (1966), these elements combine with an embrace of modernism. This manifests itself in Schnittke's use of serialism and a textural writing akin to Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Gorecki. The use of these techniques also implied, for any Soviet composer, defiance of the official standards for new music (defiance perhaps embarked upon in the full knowledge of the political failure of Shostakovich). This became part of the sense of struggle that permeates Schnittke's work.
In Canon in Memory of I. Stravinsky, sparse part-writing connects the deathless dissolution with which the First Quartet ends (which, indeed, ends all of the quartets) and which begins the Second. While Schnittke's use of modernist language in String Quartet No. 1 is fluent, his personality comes through full force in String Quartet No. 2 (1980). His appropriation of external sources or styles (including direct references to Russian sacred song) had become a major force in his work, as had construction of full-scale movements from a few elements. The Third Quartet (1983) epitomizes the former approach, which became a sort of trademark of Schnittke's mature style. The first thing we hear is a cadence from the Renaissance, a Stabat Mater of Orlando di Lasso, which Schnittke develops more extensively later in the piece. Then an undisguised quotation of the Grosse Fuge enters, and later the D-S-C-H motif of Shostakovich. Schnittke's employment of these references never approaches cheap pastiche or montage. The entire piece grows organically from the three borrowed motifs, plus one of Schnittke's own (with passing references to Das Rheingold and other works). The piece ends with the Shostakovich tetrachord in quiet pizzicato.
String Quartet No. 4, at almost 25 minutes in five movements, is fully 12 minutes longer than its predecessors. One can't help but wonder whether Schnittke intended this as the culmination of his quartet writing. Certainly, it contains all of the stylistic elements of his career. The Lento first movement begins so quietly as to be inaudible. Even the quick second movement descends into near stasis, providing a mirror image of the slow-fast-slow symmetry of much of Schnittke's work (this quartet's five movements are marked Lento-Allegro-Lento-Vivace-Lento). Throughout, disparate elements occur adjacent to one another: pure triads with harsh dissonance, strident rhythmic passages with atmospheric writing, traditional tone with thin ponticello.
The beautiful Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled with Grief uses simple melody in simple counterpoint. Grief indeed resides here; it's very Schnittke-like, referential music. This never really sounds like string-quartet music, but it's still a successful transcription.
All in all, the Kronos Quartet's readings are extremely successful. Its approach to the first three quartets differs only slightly from that of the Tale Quartet, the latter having a somewhat warmer, more traditional tone and choosing marginally slower tempos. The directness of the Kronos allows Schnittke's music to come to the fore, their even-handed exposition of the disparate elements of his polystylism insuring that no particular style receives too much of the emphasis. These are fine readings of an important body of work, and currently the Kronos is the only game in town for the Fourth Quartet. I enjoy greatly the Tale Quartet's disc of Quartets 1-3, but the Kronos Quartet's intelligent performances, with the inclusion of the other pieces, make this the set to have.
FANFARE 1998 November-December