Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Review by Will Crutchfield

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 17, 2006

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).

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