Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Review by Allan Kozinn

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 30, 2006

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.


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