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Concerto grosso No.2 & Symphony No.6 by Alfred Schnittke (Tatiana Grindenko, Alexander Ivashkin; Russian State SO, Valeri Polyansky)

Concerto Grosso No.2/Symphony No.6 by Alfred Schnittke

When someone already wrote a brilliant review, like, in this case, my friend docperkins already did, there is always the danger of saying less by saying more.

He said:

Imagine a knife that is only blade, so that no matter how you try to hold and handle it, it will cut you. That is what these two pieces do.

But if it’s my fate to say less by saying more, so be it. I always wondered why the recording of Schnittke’s Concerto grosso No.2 by Rozhdestvensky left me not exactly cold but wanting for more—while practically everyone else raves about it. Now I know: Rozhdestvensky, Kagan, and Gutman—as terrifyingly good as they are—don’t take that piece seriously. Polyansky, Grindenko, and Ivashkin do take it seriously. They know the kind of blade they’re dealing with.

So what’s different?

To start with, there’s Polyansky’s tempi. He establishes a much stricter and very crisp sense of “Baroque” expressivity by taking the fast-paced first movement (Andantino—Allegro) faster and the slow-paced second movement (Pesante) slower than Rozhdestvensky. Then, against this logic, Polyansky takes the rather slow-paced fourth movement (Andantino) perceptibly faster; but it actually helps to recognize and identify revisited motifs from the preceding movements as they keep their structural coherence. The orchestra’s and the soloists’ performance on this recording in general is more no-nonsense, more alert, and both less smug and more confident about what they’re doing, all at the same time.

Then, there’s how Rozhdestvensky’s recording was mixed and mastered. They were anxious to make everything as palatable and as obvious as possible, to neatly adjust and arrange every last detail in a well-lit display cabinet so that nobody would miss a thing. At times, it almost feels like a comedy routine. “Hey, look! look what I’m doing!” with exaggerated emphasis, and “hey look! look what I just did!” with a laugh track. Where Polyansky’s recording retains a good deal of its dynamic range, Rozhdestvensky’s was scaled down to lounge-room usability and adjusted to different shades of mezzoforte. Uncommon instruments and phrases are foregrounded to such a degree that you can almost see the finger that pushes the mixer’s slide control, while less spectacular parts like the Pesante’s continuo have nearly been swept into inaudibility. But this continuo, as the Polyansky recording makes very clear, it not the continuo of your grandparents.

Yes, the Rozhdestvensky recording is more comical, jovial, cheerful. But the second Concerto grosso, although it’s also fun, isn’t a comical piece at all. It’s a blade, it deconstructs, it hurts, it makes you bleed, with its swiftness and its lightness, like a short story by Donald Barthelme. But pretend nothing happened and keep laughing. No, it didn’t just cut right through to the bone. Let’s move on! But wait, why’s it suddenly so slippery down here?

The second piece on this album, Schnittke’s Symphony No.6, is quite obviously not as accessible as the second Concerto grosso. It’s much darker, and menacing. But that also means that you’re more inclined to handle it with care—which indeed you should. It’s not a bit less dangerous.

This review was also published at RYM.

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