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CD Feature/ Ewa Kupiec: "Alfred Schnittke: Piano Concertos"

img  Tobias
If you prefer easy answers to complex questions, then this release is not for you. Is it a repertoire-album of Alfred Schnittke works or rather an Ewa Kupiec solo disc? Should one attribute the project to fledgling and excitingly contemporary label Phoenix Edition or consider it the brainchild of ambitious German Conductor Frank Strobel, to whom Schnittke entrusted his legacy and who has probably done more for the medial presentation of his work than the composer himself? Take your pick, but consider carefully.

The Schnittke option seems most logical at first. Undisturbed by the ramblings of other composers, three of his works, marking distinct creative periods of his life, are at the heart of the record: His emphatic, arousing and unashamedly melodic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a passionate and powerful early work, written as a 26-year old graduate from University. The surreal, adventurous Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979), a hypnotic piece of 25 minutes, delineating with delirious clarity his vision of polystylism and introducing a phase of tentative recognition in Western Europe. And finally the Concerto for Piano four hands and chamber Orchestra, a dark and foreboding composition with a mostly textural approach filled with premonitious , morsecoded signals about his deteriorating health.

Stupifyingly idiosyncratic in form and sound on their own, the combination of the pieces depicts Schnittke as a man of romantic inclinations and a wilfull script. Passages of almost trivial harmonics are counterpointed by crushing Piano clusters and the most intimate of moments pierced by militant orchestral staccatos. While some motives essentially make up entire movements, other passages establish a sort of free-floating, soundscape-like dialogue between the instruments, in which phrases are stridently uttered and just as quickly lost in the ether. While references to traditional Southern-European music still haunt the emphatic opening motive of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the four handed Piano work seems only to exist in its own solitary cosmos, far away from earthly pleasures.

Schnittke’s music foremost depends on rhythm, timbre and dynamics and it certainly takes a Pianist such as Ewa Kupiec, with a deep grasp of their shifting weightings, to bring it to life. In her hands, what could be formulaic and mechanical turns into a fulminant, meaningful stream of multidirectional associations. In the Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, she first opens with a tender four-tone motive, which sets expectations for a sensual and soft development. When the ensemble comes in with beligerently marching motions, however, she sends the music slowly spiralling down into a bottomless hole of confused tonality, answering demands for a return to more harmonic waters with defiantly monolithic erruptions. Seemingly unconnected interludes, meanwhile, are presented as nervous stem cells for new melodic material – or for unexpected reprises.

Hearing the final result of the encounter between Schnittke’s music, Kupiec’ powerful expressiveness (bundled with the touch of young talent Maria Lettberg in the closing track) and the unfettered energy of the Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin must have been immensely satisfying to Frank Strobel. It was him, after all, who initiated a co-operation with German label Capriccio for a release of Suites of Schnittke’s film music, creating a renewed public interest in the artist’s oeuvre. After Johannes Kernmayer of Capriccio founded Phoenix Edition as a sort of sister label, the idea of following up on this promising and widely applauded start with different niches of the composer’s catalogue seemed only natural.

Without doubt, Strobel’s connection with Schnittke has had a solidifying effect on a production whose eclectic core risks imploding every second. And yet, it is exactly this mixture of diverse elements, which makes the final result such an irresistible and an utterly magnetic discovery. Why have so few fallen in love with this music for all these years? The answer to that question is becoming harder to answer with each day.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Frank Strobel
Homepage: Phoenix Edition

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