Review by Edward Rothstein
Review by Edward Rothstein published 12 February 1994 in The New York Times.
At the close of Alfred Schnittke’s Seventh Symphony, which received its world premiere performance by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic on Thursday night in Avery Fisher Hall, there is a disarming, soulful waltz. It comes after 20 minutes of eccentric passagework, its limpid line seeming to condense out of the sometimes bewildering mists. It is tantalizing, sung by instruments not associated with light-footed dance: the tuba, the contrabassoon and the bass.
The effect of this waltz, at once unsettling and uncanny, is typical of Mr. Schnittke’s music, which is being honored in New York with a series of major performances. The Philharmonic’s program will be repeated tonight and on Tuesday. Last weekend, the National Symphony Orchestra gave the New York premiere of his Sixth Symphony, and next weekend the American Symphony Orchestra will present the American premiere of the “Faust Cantata.”
The Philharmonic commissioned the Seventh Symphony, which is, like the Third, dedicated to Mr. Masur, one of the composer’s many champions. The conductor slyly began the concert with three rarely played Mozart Minuets (K. 104) and then, without signaling any conclusion, began Mr. Schnittke’s “(K)ein Sommernachtstraum,” a 1985 work that begins with an ersatz Mozart minuet and then mischievously transforms it, retaining a sense of classical proportion while destroying all sense of classical poise, creating carnival music and seeping washes of sound before allowing elegant simplicity to be restored.
The Seventh Symphony seems to complete a similar pattern, undoing the disintegration that haunted the Sixth. During a preconcert lecture on Thursday night, Mr. Schnittke was asked to describe the differences in the two works. He was “not sure,” he said, having until then heard the Seventh only in rehearsal. Moreover, he declined to explicate the symphony in any way.
These comments are typical of Mr. Schnittke, who is reluctant to interpret his own music. Yet they can’t hide the sense of a program — political, spiritual or autobiographical — that exists in his works. Both symphonies, in fact, are retreats from the public stand of Mr. Schnittke’s previous works in the form and seem private, reflective. The Seventh Symphony, like the Sixth, is frail, relatively brief, sometimes uneven and rarely calls for full orchestra. Its three movements are broken into episodes marked by contrasting colors and styles. But it is also a spiritual response to dissolution, replacing the bizarre silences of the Sixth Symphony with an often elegiac lyricism.
Its three movements were originally conceived for organ and strings and then reworked, since Avery Fisher Hall lacks a pipe organ. The work still has a religious cast in its chordal proclamations, its chorale for four horns, its four-voiced canons. The symphony can even seem a drama of reconstitution. Mr. Schnittke’s music is usually so unpredictable that it is impossible to sense its future from its past, but this work seemed to develop backward, explaining its past through its conclusion.
The writer Solomon Volkov pointed out that Shostakovich was a yurodivy, a figure in the Russian tradition who is part jester, part stern prophet, a devout man who is also a radical ironist. Mr. Schnittke is in that tradition as well. There are layers of mockery in his work, without a hint of Western nihilism. His weary faith in the face of disintegration could be heard in that beautifully played waltz, which touched the audience as well. After a sustained silence, the listeners gradually rose to their feet, offering the composer, his work and his interpreters a deserved ovation.