Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Rich textures

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 15, 2006

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.


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