‘Faust Cantata’ at the BBC Schnittke Festival in London’s Barbican Centre
Article by Malcolm Miller published 19 January 2001 in Music & Vision
Polystylism, the catch-word of postmodernism, has always been the feature most often singled out as characteristic of the music of Alfred Schnittke. Yet rather than the web of allusions or styles themselves, it is the unique way in which they interact with, create and contribute to dramatic structures which is Schnittke’s compelling achievement, and which emerged in the final symphonic concert of the recent Schnittke Festival at London’s Barbican Centre (12-14 January 2001), possibly the most ambitious retrospective since the composer’s death in 1998. Seeking the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke offered, with its myriad talks, films and concerts in almost every genre, an impressive overview and insight into an oeuvre, still largely unfamiliar, of a prolific artist increasingly recognised as one of the most influential Russian composers since Shostakovich.
The concert on Sunday evening featured two major works of the early 1980s, the third of Schnittke’s nine symphonies, which though timed in the programme at fifty minutes, lasted, in this powerful, broad performance, for over an hour, and the dramatic ‘Faust Cantata’. Symphony No. 3, composed in 1981, was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with effervescent energy and bright edge, responding to the dynamic command of their new Chief Conductor Leonard Slatkin. It is a large scale work in every sense: if some might have found it just over the top – which it often is, it is always for some daring purpose. The work comes perilously close to being over bombastic, too concerned with simple gestures, too banal at times, in short, not subtle enough, but its sheer sonic presence gives it conviction. The orchestration is integral to the work’s effect: with piano, harpsichord, celeste, organ and two harps, multiple brass and wind and a vast percussion section, four vibraphones, marimbas, gongs, various drums and drumkits, and bells, all contributing to the tumultuous tapestry of colours. The often overbearing textures are shot through with delicious aural flavours, slimmed down textures and passing witticisms, such as the Mozartian melodies of the second movement. The tutti material in fact has the intense expressiveness of a film score – Schnittke completed over 60 of that genre – with atmospheric progressions of chords through alternated major and minor modes, switching mercurially to something quite different.
The first movement’s opening rumblings in the large double bass section may appear simple in effect, though according to Susan Bradshaw’s copious programme notes, the material is based on elliptical musical monograms of some twenty composers. Similarly the ‘first subject’, a rising arpeggio in bassoons or brass, developed into a complex heterophonic triad, is also a brashly simple gesture, and appears also to be a reference to the slow movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Another bold gesture, a triadic flourish usually presented by brass and wind in a fanfare, bombastic style, later echoed by strings, contrasts starkly with the more bitter sweet dissonance or chromaticism of the remainder of the argument, frequently assigned to strings. Here Schnittke indulges in some Tristanesque textures, even a quote of the Tristan motif, and echoes of Berlioz, often disrupting continuity with interjections of striking sustained high notes and bold emphases.
There is a cinematic quality to the dramatic unfolding of the second, sonata form movement, where gestures are inverted in meaning. Thinner in texture, the movement is distinctively framed by a piano solo Mozartian melody, transformed in the final bars to a nostalgic fragmentary reminiscence. Snippets of waltz occasionally float through, the Mozart connection abruptly contrasted by ostinatos, lilting chords, and variants of the Mozartian melody in Russian sounding woodwind lines. Shades of Mahler and Shostakovich flit through the texture in which dissonances set against a tonally referential idiom and allusions to earlier styles are set within absolute musical structures. In the Scherzo movement brash, big band brass emerge over fast changing string textures. In the Adagio finale Leonard Slatkin seemed to expand his conducting gestures to allow immense cataclysmic crescendos to unfold, releasing finally into a quietly, nostalgic coda that cyclically reconnects with the murmuring introduction.
The BBCSO was joined by the BBC Symphony Chorus and four outstanding soloists for the ‘Faust Cantata’ (Seid nüchtern und wachet) of 1983, which by contrast is memorably fun, gaudy and daring. The ‘Faust’ theme was one which occupied Schnittke throughout his career until his final unfinished opera, ‘Historia von D. Johann Fausten’ in which this cantata was used as a surrogate finale in its incomplete Hamburg performance of 1995. Faust Cantata has a serious message, delivered in a stylised didactic manner, through declamatory final choruses and a cappella section, and by the uniquely witty pastiche ingredient at the climax — a seductively outrageous tango. As Susan Bradshaw observed, Schnittke here uses the 16th century text by Johann Spies whose folk stories Das Volksbuch vom Dr Faust (1587) was that which inspired Leverkuhn from Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, a work in which Schnittke was also deeply interested. The role of narrator was incisively projected by the tenor Justin Lavender, while the low lying bass role of Faust was sung with forthright pungency by David Wilson-Johnson. Mephisto is played by both a florid counter-tenor, here the strident-toned Andrew Watts, as well as by a cabaret-style soprano, here Susan Bickley. An important role is also assigned to Faust’s friends who assemble at his house on the night he is taken by Mephistopheles, brightly rendered by the BBC Symphony Chorus.
Schnittke’s through-composed style is at times powerfully direct, but sometimes too direct, the chorus’s declamation dramatic yet detached and almost perfunctory. Yet that detachment helps to highlight the crux of the story all the more, the gaudy tango that depicts Faust’s demonic demise after he has rejected pleas for repentance, and the depiction of his mortal remains splayed over his house. Schnittke’s association of the Mephisto destroyer with a cabaret tango, however questionable and simplistic, is nonetheless entertaining with its soupy outlandishly kitsch orchestration. It adds a layer of irony to the conclusion, a call to Christian conscience – the ‘be sober and attentive’ of the title – first for soloists and then for chorus, this sober moralising resuming the earlier atonality. One sensed, in its perplexing layers of meaning, Schnittke’s call to a more universal compositional conscience, his constant search for an authentic voice. In its desire for a rapprochement between the so-called serious, and popular musical worlds, Schnittke’s symbiosis is one which lies at the core of the post-modern aesthetic.