Lourie, Scriabin, Staude & Wyschnegradsky: Schwarze Messe / Asasello-Quartett

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One of the most independent chamber music ensembles on the international scene celebrates its twenty-second anniversary by releasing an album entitled "Black Mass" on the GENUIN label. It is a dark ride through highly emotional music of the 20th century and takes its name from Alexander Scriabin's piano sonata "Messe noire," whose quartet version is presented here for the first time on disc. Also recorded for the first time is the 1st String Quartet by Christoph Staude, one of the first pieces in the ensemble's repertoire. In addition, quartets by Arthur Vincent Lourié and Ivan Wyschnegradsky are featured. All in all, a living history of the quartet and an artistic statement at the highest instrumental caliber!


Schwarze Messe translates as Black Mass, the nickname given to Scriabin’s ninth piano sonata, a version of which appears here. There is no obvious connection with the other works, but they make an enterprising programme, in which three of the four works have links, albeit somewhat loose ones, with Russian Futurism. The Asasello-Quartett specializes in recent and contemporary music and they have also recorded a well-regarded set of the Schoenberg string quartets.

We begin with Arthur Lourié. He was a Russian composer who was involved with the Russian avant-garde in the years before the first World War. After the Revolution he first worked for the Soviet government but then left and moved to Paris where for a number of years he was close to Stravinsky, who entrusted him with the piano arrangements of several of his works. They later fell out. When the Germans seized Paris he moved to the USA, where he remained for the rest of his life. In his early years Lourié was influenced by late Scriabin, but in his later years he became a neoclassicist, like Stravinsky. What I had previously heard of his music was pleasant enough, but minor and derivative. This quartet, however, is a different matter. It is in a late romantic idiom which is moving towards expressionism – in fact, it reminded me of Berg’s early quartet. It is in two quite long movements which are full of interesting and varied material, with perhaps more of a rhythmic drive than the Berg. I was impressed by this work and started wondering about Lourié’s two later quartets.

Christoph Staude stands rather apart from the other composers here, being much more recent and German. He has been around a good long time but has been little recorded, and hearing his quartet, I am not surprised. It dates from 1986 and is full of gestures which were fashionable at the time, such as glissandi, sudden explosive outbursts, harsh sul ponticello writing, mysterious mutterings and even a Bartók pizzicato. The five short movements pass slowly.

Next we have a transcription for string quartet of Scriabin’s ninth piano sonata, the work after which this disc is named. This is one of the most powerful and convincing of Scriabin’s later works. He takes three themes, all basically quite simple: a descending chromatic scale, a repeated rhythm with a falling semitone and a rising passage, and out of them gradually weaves an extraordinarily sinister and menacing work, culminating in a chromatic cascade which in the right hands can make the flesh creep. The problem is that the work is very idiomatically written for the piano, for example exploiting the ictus of repeated notes and the waves of sound created by the sustaining pedal. The transcription is quite nicely done, but I would rather have heard a work written for the string quartet.

Finally we have the first string quartet of Ivan Wyschnegradsky. He was another Russian who went into exile in Paris. His speciality was writing in microtones, that is subdivisions of the octave finer than the semitones of our normal tonal system. He wrote mainly in quartertones, but also in third, sixth and even twelfth tones. Many composers have been intrigued by the idea of microtones, and you can hear the occasional use of them as decorative elements in works by Enescu, Bartók and Szymanowski. Wyschnegradsky was much more thorough-going in his devotion, in particular, to quartertones, and he even wrote a short textbook, Manual of Quartertone Harmony. His second quartet here is in three short movements which show a Bartókian energy and drive with a vigorous opening and some attractive lyrical writing. The quartertones don’t make an entrance until a cello theme part way into the first movement and thereafter you can hear them, particularly in a passage of dense and very peculiar-sounding harmony. However, the work is an attractive one, and I found myself entertaining the heretical thought that it could have been revised into normal writing without losing anything important. Wyschnegradsky seems to me to have been a potentially valuable composer who wasted his life going up a blind alley.

The performances here are compelling and the recording good. The Lourié quartet seems to me a genuinely valuable work and the Wyschnegradsy an interesting curiosity. The Staude is a dud and the Scriabin transcription a wasted opportunity. These seem to be the only currently available versions of all the works here. There are, of course, many recordings of the Scriabin sonata in its original piano version, and there was once a recording of all three of Lourié’s string quartets by the Utrecht quartet on the now-defunct ASV label. So a mixed bag and a disc for the adventurous.

Stephen Barber

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 15, 2022

  • Catalog Number: GEN 22745

  • UPC: 4260036257458

  • Label: Genuin

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Period: 20th Century

  • Composer: Alexander Scriabin

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Asasello-Quartett