Review by Allan Kozinn published 21 March 1988 in The New York Times.
Over the last decade, Alfred Schnittke’s reputation has traveled quickly in the West, carried by Soviet emigres and touring musicians who cite him as one of the Soviet Union’s most inventive composers. Performances of his music have been less plentiful than these glowing citations might suggest, but such glimpses as we’ve had, mostly through recordings, have shown Mr. Schnittke to be a composer who borrows freely from accrued tradition in order to synthesize an individualistic and compelling brand of new music.
Two of Mr. Schnittke’s works – a Requiem (1975) and his Fourth Symphony (1984) – were given American premieres this afternoon at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross as part of the Making Music Together festival. And while this reviewer suspects that both works would have been heard to better effect in a less reverberant concert setting, the music certainly made a firm impression and left one eager to sample more of Mr. Schnittke’s catalogue.
Sarah Caldwell led the New England Conservatory Chorus and Orchestra, and four vocal soloists, in a vibrant performance of the Requiem. The work is scored for an eccentric ensemble – brass, percussion, an array of mallet instruments, organ, piano, celesta and electric guitar and bass. Yet this colorful assemblage is rarely deployed in full force, and its role in the work is modest. Primarily, it provides a solid foundation for the soloists and chords, with occasional flashes or glittery adornment or harshly dissonant commentary on the text setting.
In his choral writing, Mr. Schnittke draws on everything from ancient liturgical chant to clusters and 12-tone rows, and he jumps easily over national stylistic boundaries, moving from Durufle-like harmonies one moment to late 19th-century Russian grandeur the next, and carrying it off persuasively. The setting itself has provocative moments: Mr. Schnittke’s Credo, for instance, has the brash power more typical of a Dies Irae.
At that, the performance left much to the imagination, for the combination of uneven amplification and the cathedral’s bright acoustics often yielded skewed balances. Ironically, this reverberant haze had a magical effect on the Fourth Symphony, a fascinating single-movement work that toys with textural densities, shifting rhythmic pulses and canonic echo effects.
Here too, Mr. Schnittke’s instrumentation is kaleidoscopic – the standard string and wind complement is augmented by piano, harpsichord, gongs, bells, pitched percussion, mezzo-soprano and tenor soloists and, in the final moments, a small chorus. But if in the Requiem the orchestration is subservient to the text setting, in the symphony it emerges as an exquisite tapestry of evolving themes, all recapitulated in the choral finale.
The symphony was performed, brilliantly, by the Instrumental Soloists of the Bolshoi Theater, led by Aleksandr Lazarev. The fine soloists in the Requiem were Emily Rawlins and Sarah Reese, sopranos, Nina Gaponova, mezzo-soprano, and Noel Velasco, tenor. Miss Gaponova and Mr. Velasco also sang the haunting, wordless solos in the symphony.
Review by Will Crutchfield published 29 May 1988 in The New York Times.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art last Sunday evening, a whole program was devoted to the chamber music of Alfred Schnittke, widely hailed in recent years as the successor to Shostakovich among Soviet composers. Four big works spanning two decades were played: a violin and piano piece called ”Quasi una Sonata” (1968), a piano quintet dated 1972-76, a three-year-old string trio and a new sonata for piano that had its world premiere at the concert.
Mr. Schnittke does not have a consistent or identifiable style, and, he might well respond, why should he? ”Polystylistic” is a word he uses, according to the program notes, for his music of the past 15 or 20 years. Like several composers in the West, he has turned to pastiche, with snippets of Mozart or chant or what have you thrown together in a single work. Fair enough; pastiche has been called the form of our day.
But Mr. Schnittke’s music sounds like pastiche at the level of thought, message, idea as surely as at the surface level of motives and pitches. Now he puts the B-A-C-H theme through its paces; now he tries a canon at the unison spaced so as to make a little G-minor tune pile up dissonances. Then the strings explore quarter-tones in a kind of whining conjunct motion; here a minor triad is hammered out to the point of absurdity (over 100 times in all, near the end of the piano sonata); there a little shepherd’s tune tinkles in the piano while the strings contradict it. Nothing wrong with any of these devices, but somehow the device always seems to be the point, instead of a tool to make a point.
The two most typical strains in the evening’s works were a strident one in which the biting aspect of Shostakovich and Prokofiev was carried to extremes, and a mysterious or enigmatic one in which things are tapped out very softly (sometimes he askes the pianist to make only key-noise, no tone) or whispered on the strings. In both, one hears a dogged emphasis, an insistence on effect that is rather ungiving as regards expression or personal disclosure.
The sonata and the ”Quasi una Sonata” were especially full of violent, dissonant crashes – punctuated, in the latter piece, by long silences in which the players stared intensely into space, an effect that was somehow hard to take seriously when they had to start over after a violin string broke. Through most of the trio, the old-music interpolations alternated with the dreariest kind of hard-driving dissonance. The Quintet was by far the most agreeable piece, but even more than the others it seemed to be a bag of tricks.
Many of these objections, especially those about transparent preoccupation with technical devices, could be raised against, say, Britten, or Bach. The deployment is subtler and richer in those composers, but it seems to me that Mr. Schnittke could become subtler still and yet not convey anything fundamentally different from what he does now. At some point one must simply say that either the essential content of the music is weak, or it has eluded the listener. Either is possible.
The efficient performers were the violinists Dmitri Sitkovetsky (who played with an exaggerated vibrato) and Alexandre Brussilovsky; the violist Paul Neubauer, the cellist John Sharp and the pianist Vladimir Feltsman (an enthusiastic executant of the lunging accents that Mr. Schnittke uses so liberally).
Review by Andrew Clements published 22 December 1999 in The Guardian
Alfred Schnittke died last August at the age of 63. He had been ill for at least a decade, but that had seemed hardly to interrupt the prodigal flow of new works. In the 90s he seemed to be composing faster and in a wider range of genres than ever before. The sheer proliferation of pieces makes it hard to get a true perspective on his achievement; the unevenness of his output and its polyglot style also defy easy categorisation. But the tribute offered at the Wigmore Hall at least confined itself to one small portion of that vast range.
The cellist Alexander Ivashkin, who is also the author of the first book-length study in English of Schnittke’s music, was partnered by the pianist Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, for whom he wrote a number of his piano works.
The three substantial works in their programme were the two sonatas for cello and piano (from 1978 and 1994) and the second piano sonata (1991), while Ivashkin also played two solo miniatures and the epilogue of Schnittke’s ballet Peer Gynt for cello, piano and pre-recorded tape. But even within that relatively prescribed instrumental range there were still dislocations – passages that inhabit the introspective world of post-Shostakovich lyricism that always seems to me Schnittke’s most convincing voice, alongside music that uses pitches almost indiscriminately, as if the effect were all that mattered.
The first cello sonata sustained itself the most convincingly, though Ivashkin’s rather meagre tone and sometimes uncertain intonation deprived the music of a portion of its richness. But the effect of the two miniatures was paradoxically greater – the Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan (1991) was a sombre, arching lament, and the Klingende Buchstaben (1988) was equally rapt, spiralling up through the registers of the cello until it ends, whistling in the dark, in the highest range.