Schnittke's Piano Quintet, a creative response to his mother's death, is an austere, haunting work full of grief and tenderness that marks one of his early ventures into polystylistic writing. The opening piano solo is unique, a spare statement of puzzlement in the face of tragedy. It gives way to a waltz, as if recapturing a lost past, then the graceful dance melody literally disintegrates as the strings venture off into other regions, vainly trying to reassemble the theme and failing. At the end of its touching five movements the music's despair is transformed into serene, hard-won acceptance. Shostakovitch's 15th Quartet, his final statement in that form, premiered just months before his death. It's six slow movements are shot through with contemplative sadness and regret. The music is so rich in texture and substance that attention never flags.
Are you ready for extreme 18th century keyboard? The typically sparse packaging graphics of this ECM release may indicate only to German speakers what's contained inside: a "Tangentenflügel" is a tangent piano, a rare keyboard instrument of Mozart's time that used hammers, striking the strings at a tangent, but no dampers. The sound combines qualities of a clavichord (its nearest relative, but the tangent piano is louder), a fortepiano, and a harpsichord.
A compelling performance… "Recorded live in the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory at the 1st and 2nd rounds of the XI International Tchaikovsky Competition" in June 1998… by one of the era's most talented musicians. In his too-short life and altogether too-brief career, Mr. Sultanov engendered controversy and conflict in the music world with his take-no-prisoners style that demanded complete surrender, enchanting many and offending others, and, as a result, he was unfairly denied the acclaim and honors for which he strove, which he had every right to expect from us, and which he so richly deserved. In every performance (now, alas, recorded only), he offers a precious gift, as if to say, each time, "Here, take it, it's yours." Those who acknowledge and accept the gift are blessed by a new and greater understanding of what they hear, as though for the first time.
Winning first prize at the 1989 Van Cliburn Competition, Alexei Sultanov enjoyed a meteoric rise of epic proportions, with a major recording contract, Carnegie Hall recital, American and European tours, and TV appearances with Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and other notables. But Sultanov's star soon fell to Earth as critics would often characterize his bold style in unflattering terms, finding his interpretive manner feral and superficial, and his herculean fortes ostentatious: he broke a string during a performance of the Liszt First Mephisto Waltz at the Cliburn Competition. But the youthful pianist's health soon proved a more formidable opponent than any critic's pen, as a series of strokes sabotaged his career, eventually leaving him paralyzed on his left side after 2001. Though he died at 35, Sultanov left a memorable though controversial legacy. His Prokofiev, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Scriabin could rivet the listener, while his Beethoven and Mozart might have been less consistently engaging. His recordings, mostly available from Warner Classics, document the enormous talent of this imaginative performer, a pianist unafraid to take interpretive chances.
Valentin Silvestrov is not just the Ukraine’s most prominent composer but also a major voice in the music of our time: a quiet voice, to be sure, and one that some will pigeon-hole at the soft-core end of the New Spirituality. But even a first encounter should suggest the presence of deeper perspectives, and encounters with the full range of his music only serve to confirm that impression. Russian commentators have long since ranged Silvestrov alongside Schnittke, Gubaidulina and Denisov as one of the most important figures that came to maturity in the 1970s. It was then that he produced music such as the two Cantatas – the earlier one for soprano and chamber orchestra, setting words by Tyuchev and Blok, the later one for a cappella choir to verses by Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Chevchenko. Both works blend Webernian angularity with an ecstatic lyricism.