Naxos presents Boris Berman and the Vermeer Quartet performing the Shostakovich and Schnittke piano quintets, two brilliant and very different works. Shostakovich's quintet was written in 1940, and first performed by the composer and the Beethoven Quartet on November 23, 1940. It was an immediate success, and for many years was considered in the West to be a greater work than his symphonies (it was written in between the 6th and 7th Symphonies). In five movements, it is quite accessible, and reminds me of a Mahler symphony in that it ranges widely in style and mood, from lively and ebullient to the darkest grief. It ends on a cheerful note, which no doubt helped secure it official recognition from Stalin and the regime. Its popularity with the Russian people, I can't help but think, was probably, like the 5th Symphony, more due to its darker qualities.
Schnittke's quintet, which he began in 1972 and finished in 1975, was a response to the death of his mother. It is a much more radical work than Shostakovich's, and much more grim. The second movement centers on a haunting waltz, which captures the tonal-oriented ear, but most of the piece is densely chromatic (ie, atonal). The overwhelming, crushing grief is resolved, if only tentatively, at the end as a lovely, simple melody emerges, and is repeated 14 times fading into a fragile sense of peace and resolution.
This is a splendid recording of a soulful performance, and should be heard by all who enjoy the music of either Shostakovich or Schnittke. The Shostakovich Quintet is a 20th Century work that already sounds like it belongs alongside Beethoven and the other classical greats. The Schnittke Quintet is more challenging, but deserves to be heard. (Thanks to the Naxos art department for the great Russian constructivist painting!)
For more reviews and recommendations, see my SHOSTAKOVICH: A LISTENER'S GUIDE list and my SCHNITTKE: A LISTENER'S GUIDE list.