Schnittke, Danish String Quartet

Alfred Schnittke by Reginald Gray. Wikimedia Commons.

Alfred Schnittke’s third string quartet, composed in 1983, starts with an unusual premise. We hear quotations from three different composers, spanning the Renaissance to the twentieth century: Lassus, Beethoven, and Shostakovich.

First, mysteriously, are two short fragments from Lassus’s Stabat Mater. Concordant and serene, these are recognisably from another age entirely. But the subsequent quotations – from Beethoven’s ‘Great Fugue’ for string quartet, and Shostakovich’s ‘DSCH’ monogram – follow on with jarringly opaque dissonance.

Out of these diverse elements, Schnittke constructs three movements in his particular brand of ‘polystylism’. And a new recording by the Danish String Quartet – the second in their ‘Prism’ series – brings this arresting work to rigorous, vigorous life.

There’s certainly a great deal of cleverness in how Schnittke combines and transforms this material (for an in-depth analysis, see this Master’s Thesis). But as a listener, what matters most is how the quartet continually twists and turns through a range of colours, textures, and stylistic allusions, like a kind of warped dream.

Nothing stays in focus for long. The second movement opens with a tugging scherzo theme that could have been written by Schubert, but almost instantly it’s upended in a violent car-crash. Schnittke is dementedly determined to reinvent his material, and keep us constantly guessing where we’re headed.

This is splintered, knotty, potentially confounding music – but the Danish Quartet inject ice and fire into its veins, with a performance of tremendous energy and panache that I find utterly convincing.

And for all the music’s harsh rhetoric, as the serene fragment of Lassus keeps floating back in its various guises, it seems to be a reminder of possibilities lying beyond all this furious invention – perhaps something purer than Beethoven’s struggle for greatness and the clever self-awareness of Shostakovich.

How does a composer say something new, under the crushing weight of music already written? The unusual premise of this quartet is to pointedly shrug off that burden, and the result feels egalitarian and curiously liberating. Nothing here, from the anachronistic opening to its quietly ambiguous ending, seems to be an answer to anything. And it doesn’t need to be. Schnittke shows that continual questioning – with the steeliest commitment from composer and performers alike – is fascinating enough.

Hear Prism II by the Danish String Quartet on Apple Music or Spotify.

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