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Schoenberg Webern Schnittke String Trios

Goeyvaerts String Trio
Kristien Roels: violin
Kris Matthynssens: viola
Pieter Stas: cello

Challenge Classics CC 72375

Listeners will have various reactions to this CD and its programme of music from 1927 to 1985. The presentation is peculiarly defensive. About the earliest music, Webern's, it seems almost to glory in reminding us that an eminent British cellist, James Whitehead, best remembered now for having'50s, walked off the Wigmore Hall platform saying "I can't play this thing - a nightmare - not music at all, but mathematics". In refutation Elise Simoens divines that Whitehead was "obsessing on the work's extremely high technical-composition level"... And to bolster up the disc for sceptics, Channel Classics includes a 1949 broadcast defence of the Schoenberg trio from the composer himself.

So, what is the prospective listener to think? Firstly, to music lovers with open ears I would recommend purchase. And perhaps that nervous ones should play all this music in a different order than the track listing.

Webern's posthumous movement (only two and a half minutes) reconciles sonata form with dodecaphony in a way that shouldn't frighten the horses, and it will introduce you to the refinement of the Goeyvaerts String Trio's playing. Next, perhaps the Schnittke Trio, the most recent. But because it consists of two long slow movements, take them one at a time. The first is extremely beautiful, and I've never heard it more so than from these players. It's general mood is sad to tragic, and that goes for its second movement too. For British listeners there is an incongruity in that its main motiv is a clear variant on Happy Birthday (Simoens seems to imply that this is clear enough to Continental listeners too).

So go next to the Schoenberg trio, in a single movement with multiple sections, 3 Parts and 2 Episodes. With a variety of extreme registers and playing techniques (flageolet, col legno, pizzicato and sul ponticello) there is more than enough to engage the ear. The notes may be "wrong" for listeners wedded to tonality, but the whole is intriguing and, dare I say, beautiful. There is another good account of the trio in Naxos' budget Schoenberg series - "one of Schoenberg's most haunting and satisfying works, once one has got inside its uncompromising language."

Time to tackle Webern's 12 minutes of high density twelve-tone rigour. I still find it tough and uncommunicative after several hearings and will probably never learn to love it (but at least it isn't an impenetrable morass of inchoate sound like Ferneyhough's touted La terre est un homme).

So, to conclude a stimulating hour's listening, finish with Schnittke's Adagio, deeply felt and coherent, addressing in music the composer's cultural isolation under the Soviets. Then, next day you may be ready to hear it all again in the listed order...

There are few reviews to be found; musicweb-international's is generally positive but with reservations about the actual performances and their sound which I do not share. On new equipment - Sony home cinema CD/DVD player - (a factor often ignored by reviewers and rarely disclosed) it sounded fine and by no means lacking in feeling; there are sound bites at the link above top.

I doubt if there will be a rival for this intelligent programming, so do try it.

Peter Grahame Woolf