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IN BRIEF

CLASSICAL

ALFRED SCHNITTKE The Complete String Quartets (Nonesuch 2-discs-7 9500-2). Given his ailing heart and a series of strokes, no one was the slightest bit shocked at the recent death at 63 of Alfred Schnittke. Even in a post-glasnost world that has been stunned by Russian and Eastern European composers (Gorecki, Part, Vasks, Silvestrov), Schnittke stood out -- as willfully prolific as he was wildly allusive and eclectic but always, in his way, suggesting that he, and no one else, was the heir of Shostakovich and, therefore, Mahler. The complete Shostakovich string quartets require six discs to encompass all 15 of them. It was Shostakovich's "confessional" form, where the always-imperilled, often-abused composer could confide his purest musical expression, even in times of persecution and disgrace (especially in times of persecution and disgrace). Schnittke's four string quartets can be spread out over two discs and even then a five-minute "Canon in Memory of Stravinsky" and eight-minute string quartet adaptation of the rich, gray second movement from his 1984-5 "Concerto for Mixed Choir" -- called "Collected Songs When Every Verse Is Filled With Grief" -- was folded comfortably into more than an hour and forty minutes of music. The thorniness of the serial first quartet from 1966 and dense, epic fourth from 1989 resist easy assimilation. (In fact, the first confirms Richard Taruskin's judgement in "Defining Russia Musically" that the early serial works "would have made him a very conforming composer indeed had he been a Westerner.") But the second and third quartets from the '80s are magnificent -- deeply expressive, desperate, almost phantasmogoric ("He prizes," says Taruskin wittily, "the heroic subjectivity audiences identify with. . . . However harsh or aggressive or even harrowing, the music never bewilders. . . . The result is socialist realism minus socialism.") Every new venture by the Kronos Quartet is an achievement in world musical culture -- a major one in this case with such worthy, magnificent music played with such devotion, depth and passion. There is no greater working modern quartet than the Kronos -- not in musical scope, nor in creative contribution in a time where the very millennial survival of classical music culture can't help but be doubted. A mating of the Kronos and Schnittke was a natural. Rating: **** 1/2 .

-- Jeff Simon
LORD BERNERS The Triumph of Neptune (complete ballet), L'uomo dai baffi (The Man With the Mustache), Valses bourgeoises, Polka; English Northern Philharmonia conducted by David Lloyd-Jones (Marco Polo 8.223711). If you don't know the music of Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson (1883-1950), who succeeded to the barony as Lord Berners in 1919, this is a good place to start. Berners was eccentric and multi-talented. He published six novels and a two-volume autobiography, had several exhibits of his oil paintings, and was a distinguished amateur chef, in addition to his many compositions. The only other vaguely comparable English music would be Walton's "Facade." Berners studied with Vaughan Williams, Casella and Stravinsky but was mainly influenced by Satie. He numbered Osbert Sitwell, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw among his intimate friends. "The Triumph of Neptune" is his best known work, a 43-minute ballet score full of perky, raucous irreverence, genuine lyrical inspiration and bristling instrumentation, all within an audience-friendly context. There have been prior recordings of suites from this score, notably by Beecham, but this is the first complete recording. It verifies that the suites were well-chosen but also introduces some delectable, heretofore unknown sections. The other works, all delightful, are transcriptions of varying heritages, and add more of the infectious music of this charmingly eccentric composer to the catalog. Rating: ****.

-- Herman Trotter

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