Review by Edward Rothstein
Review by Edward Rothstein published 8 February 1994 in The New York Times.
Just over a decade ago, the composer Alfred Schnittke was little known outside the Soviet Union. The New Grove Dictionary devoted a brief article to his work and isolated pieces appeared here and there, but the composer himself, who wrote more than 60 film scores along with his concert music, quietly taught in Moscow.
No more. Now he is mentioned in same breath as Shostakovich, is represented by an extensive series of recordings on BIS and a new set of releases on Sony Classical, and, like some of the other composers from what was once the Soviet bloc, he is viewed as possessing an authenticity we can only hope to imitate. During the next two weeks, he is also to become an important fixture of the New York musical scene with a series of major premieres.
The 60-year-old Mr. Schnittke, whose music is caustic, sentimental and often genuinely strange, deserves every bit of the attention, though I don’t think the first entries in this unofficial Schnittke festival will make the case for those who don’t already know. On Saturday night in Merkin Concert Hall, the Yale Music Spectrum presented the American premieres of a six-hand piano work and the Second Piano Sonata, minor works glinting with Mr. Schnittke’s prismatic imagination.
On Sunday evening in Carnegie Hall, with the composer in attendance, Mstislav Rostropovich conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in the New York premiere of Mr. Schnittke’s death-haunted Sixth Symphony, one of the weirder scores in a deliberately weird oeuvre. The piece, completed in 1992, raises a good deal of curiosity about Mr. Schnittke’s more recently composed Seventh Symphony, which will be presented in its world premiere this Thursday night in Avery Fisher Hall by Kurt Masur leading the New York Philharmonic. (On Friday, the American Symphony Orchestra will join in the festivities with the American premiere of the composer’s 1983 “Faust Cantata.”)
The Sixth Symphony, a half-hour work dedicated to Mr. Rostropovich and his orchestra, is almost shocking. It has the traditional four-movement form, but its energies are directed at dismantling the very idea of a symphony. The orchestra never plays as a coherent ensemble, but rather is split into miniature sections. The clarinets play a duet with the bassoons; four trombones become a recurring chorus; the strings chatter with fragile nervousness. The musical material is fragmented: phrases are clipped, broken into sections, split apart by long rests. The meter keeps changing with enough irregularity to make all accents unsettling. The divisions of the movements hardly seem to matter, the music has already been dissected, its internal echoes and allusions providing not coherence but unease.
The audience did not know what to make of it. Though many listeners fled at intermission, after a soporific performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concero (with Eugene Istomin as soloist), many more left during the middle of this work, which seemed so haunted by death it already seemed to have undergone decay.
One reason for Mr. Schnittke’s popularity is that he seems the archetypal post-modernist. His music plunders the musical tradition, quoting from it, distorting it, marking its demise. His mature works are written in a manner he once called “polystylistic.” He has written parts for harpsichord and for electric guitar; he has alluded to Bach and used fragments from Mahler. The temptation, in fact, is to consider Mr. Schnittke a theatrical figure, solemn but not quite serious, somberly dancing on musical graves.
But he is more complicated. His power comes not from trashing the tradition, but from taking a stand within its ruins. He mourns a lost past, but can also reconstitute something out of the wreckage, create a moving, touching memorial. What was so distressing and peculiar about the Sixth Symphony is that he left himself so little ground on which to stand.
Mr. Rostropovich and the composer, who appeared onstage looking distressingly frail (he has suffered two serious strokes in recent years), are friends, and Mr. Rostropovich conducted with obvious devotion. But there may have been more to this work than Mr. Rostropovich heard; the silences between the fragments were curiously leaden, not latent with expectation, exaggerating the work’s oddities.
The Yale Music Spectrum concert gave a different view of the composer, framing him in a Russian tradition by performing Prokofiev’s Opus 39 Quintet, songs by Mussorgsky and Stravinsky, and Shostakovich’s pungent and melancholy Opus 67 piano trio. This frame, along with the muscular performance of Mr. Schnittke’s Second Piano Sonata by Boris Berman, suggested that at the heart of Mr. Schnittke’s music may be a distinctively Russian playfulness in which irony mixes with a fearsome respect for the forces of history.
In his best music that mixture does indeed make him heir to Shostakovich; it also attracts him to ears in the West, where history is too often treated as just a novelty.