Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Chandos CD Reviews: Symphony No. 7/Cello Concerto No. 1

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Alexander Ivashkin cello
Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Valeri Polyansky
Recorded in: Mosfilm Studio, Moscow
Renowned Schnittke expert Alexander Ivashkin is the authoritative soloist in Schnittke’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1.
This is a unique coupling of Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 7, with only one other recording of the Symphony currently available. This disc adds to the extensive catalogue of Schnittke’s works already available on Chandos.
Alexander Ivashkin and the combined Russian forces of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Valeri Polyansky prove the perfect exponents of Schnittke’s music.
Schnittke’s last symphonies, like all of his later compositions, become economical in the number of notes they use, and more modest in orchestration and duration. The music becomes more intense, and the language more difficult. Symphony No. 7 was commissioned by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. (Masur also commissioned Schnittke’s Third Symphony.)
The first performance of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 7 took place in the Avery Fisher Hall, New York on 10 February 1994. He was present at all of the rehearsals and, characteristically, made changes up until the last moment. It is in three movements, the first begins with a solo violin and seems to take on the identity of a concerto, but soon the violin is joined by other instruments. The second movement follows without and break and is a short (fifty-six bars) Largo. The last movement – Allegro – is longer than the two previous movements put together. Schnittke introduces a favourite device of his, a ‘moto perpetuo’ that goes nowhere, and develops into a waltz which, played grotesquely by the lower instruments, ends the work. It was after the premiere that Schnittke returned very ill to Hamburg after suffering badly from the cold New York weather and ultimately suffered the second stroke which left him able only to write with his left hand and unable to speak.
The Cello Concerto No. 1 was the first work written by Schnittke after a near-fatal stroke in 1985 during which his heart stopped three times; the journey to the ‘next world’ is reflected in the Concerto. The music after his stroke became more dissonant and discordant, the melodies more contorted. It was originally intended to be a three-movement work, finishing with an Allegro vivace. Schnittke wrote: ‘Suddenly I was given this finale from somewhere, and I’ve just written it down’. It is a slow prayer-like Passacaglia.
Reviews
‘In the Concerto the balance gives the cello star billing, and Ivashkin lives up to it.’
Gramophone on CHAN 9722 (Cello concerto No. 2 etc.)
‘Alexander Ivashkin is a first-rate cellist as well as Schnittke’s biographer; he is partnered here by the composer’s wife in interpretations that may fairly be described as definitive.’
Hi-Fi News on CHAN 9705 (complete works for cello and piano)
‘Excellent performances’
The Sunday Times on CHAN 9564 (Concerto for Piano and Strings)
‘Alexander Ivashkin… reveals himself here to be a cellist of international standing… this is a distinguished release, one that gives eloquent reportage on two of this composer’s most important and contrasting scores.’
American Record Guide

Chandos CD Reviews: Symphony No. 6/Concerto Grosso No.2

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Tatiana Grindenko violin
Alexander Ivashkin cello
Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Valeri Polyansky
Recorded in: Mosfilm Studio, Moscow

This is the latest recording in Polyansky’s survey of the music of Alfred Schnittke. The disc features Alexander Ivashkin, one of today’s most distinguished cellists, who was friends with the composer from 1969 until his death in 1998. Ivashkin has made an enormous contribution to the Chandos catalogue with his benchmark recordings of his native Russian repertoire. Chandos’ survey of Schnittke’s music has brought many new people to this fascinating repertoire and thus contributed to the increasing awareness of this composer’s works in recent years. Previous releases in the survey have been favourably received.

Schnittke’s Sixth Symphony was commissioned by the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington and its director, Mstislav Rostropovich, and received its first performance with that orchestra in Moscow in 1993. Taken in isolation from his other eight symphonies (like all true symphonists, his works in the genre are staging posts, each new attempt marking a fresh beginning) it is a remarkable work. From the cataclysmic outset, unfolding all twelve notes of the chromatic scale in a piled-up chord on winds, brass and strings, the vividness of its refined yet dark sound world both disturbs and fascinates. This elegantly minimalist symphony contains references to his opera Historia von D Johann Fausten which Schnittke described as ‘a negative passion’. Dealing with the problem of good and evil, the prominent chorale-like (brass choir) elements in the symphony suggest a sub-text link with the opera.

In the earlier Concerto Grosso No. 2, the standard string-based baroque orchestra, with its interaction of solo concertino and massed ripieno, is enclosed within the giant envelope of the modern symphony orchestra, including a formidable array of percussion. It is difficult to escape the analogy of light and darkness. The composition takes as its motto theme the tune of ‘Silent Night’, and having set it up as an icon of peace and tranquillity in a solo cello prologue, leaves it far behind in a mass of whirling activity that gleams, darkens and explodes throughout the first three movements, but returns to it in all its calm for the long, drawn-out final movement.

Reviews

“With two fine soloists in the Concerto Grosso No. 2, this is a must for collectors of Chandos’ Schnittke series, and a welcome reminder of one of the later 20th-century’s most distinctive and troubling musical voices.”
Gramophone

”…it’s just that the new recording, supervised by Polyansky himself, reproduces the orchestral detail in such superior sound that it’s an automatic first choice. Add the fact that Gridenko and Ivashkin (a friend of Schnittke and his biographer) give superb accounts of their solo parts, with fine support from Polyansky’s Russian musicians, and it’s a clincher.”
Fanfare (USA)

”Certainly these works are both vital pieces in the post-modern jigsaw of Schnittke’s output, and these Chandos performances are at least as good as, if not better than, the rival versions on BIS. Tatiana Gridenko (one of the first Soviet advocates of Schnittke’s music) and Alexander Ivashkin (his biographer) bring an air of authority and commitment to the Concerto Grosso while Valeri Polyansky gives the internal tensions of the Symphony a razor’s edge.”
BBC Music Magazine

“Throughout this disc, the echt-Russian timbres of Valeri Polyansky’s band have a compulsion of their own, empowering what rhetoric there is with what seems like the appropriate clout.”
International Record Review

Doing it in Styles

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Written by Duncan Hadfield

Each January over the past decade the BBC Symphony Orchestra has arranged an ample three-day weekend festival at the Barbican in which the spotlight is turned on a major 20th century musical figure. With the inclusion of Janacek, Hindemith, Lutoslawski, Ives, Martinu, Messiaen and Weill, the achievements of some of the past century’s most idiosyncratic and enigmatic masters have been intriguingly disseminated. But maybe none come more idiosyncratic or enigmatic than the man in the limelight does this forthcoming weekend, the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.

The prolific Schnittke, who died in 1998, is certainly a chameleon-like figure, and precariously difficult to pin down – maybe in part to his almost unique background and circumstances. Ostensibly a Russian composer but with a German name, he was born in Russia in 1934 without a drop of Russian blood, in the town of Engels (once the capital of a German republic in the Soviet Union) of a Jewish but German-speaking father and German mother. Add to Schnittke’s prevalent Germanic background the fact that, as a boy, he spent a couple of musically-formative years in Vienna and it’s maybe not surprising that Schnittke’s lifelong composing hallmark has been called polystylism, in which he often borrows, twists, alludes to, or parodies a host of other composers in an often free-flowing, post-modernist or collage-like fashion.

Contributing further to Schnittke’s idiosyncrasy, he rose to prominence as a radical avant-gardist at a time when such a stance was certainly frowned upon in the barren cultural climate of post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Add to that a mindset that frequently seems to alternate between moods of the uttermost bleakness and despair, and savage humour on the other – the music of Alfred Schnittke certainly makes its listeners ponder just what sort of concoction they are hearing with the passing of each minute.

The conductor Martyn Brabbins, who presides over two of the Schnittke Weekend’s concerts, agrees: “When one first hears Schnittke – and I remember when I first did – it’s possible to encounter huge difficulties with his language, or maybe one should say languages. You wonder what this guy is up to? Soon though things even out and one sees it’s the very kaleidoscopic nature of the imagination that is the music’s true subject.”

Certainly for anyone unfamiliar with Schnittke’s multi-faceted idiom, a good as work as any with which to start is the encyclopaedic Symphony No.1, which Brabbins conducts this Friday. “The huge First Symphony is archetypal Schnittke,” says Brabbins, “and occupied him for three years between 1969-72. It calls for a massive orchestra and is a kind of Haydn Farewell Symphony in reverse – instead of musicians leaving the stage, they arrive on it to start this epic work. Quotations extend from medieval polyphony to Berg, Gershwin and jazz. It was premiered in Gorky and soon word got out that some very extraordinary musical happening had occurred.” In the same concert, Brabbins also conducts Schnittke’s no less extraordinary Violin Concerto No.4, with its dedicatee Gidon Kremer as soloist. “The violin was always one of Schnittke’s favourite instruments,” he comments, “which he virtually imbues with a personality which represents his own inner mischievous voice. Of course another quirk of the Fourth Concerto is just when one expects a cadenza, the soloist is called upon not to play but mime one.”

Martyn Brabbins’s other concert on Sat (at 1pm) with the London Sinfonietta brings yet more aspects of Schnittke’s curious character to the fore. “We start with the Concerto Grosso No.1 in which we see that his stylistic appropriation also extended to old forms, and here he openly subverts the relationship between the soloists and the ripieno. We end with the very bleak and very austere and sparse Symphony No.4; a genuine statement of deeply held religious faith. And in the middle there’s the world premiere of Fragment, which was commissioned by the Sinfonietta, but which Schnittke sadly didn’t live to finish.”

The plethora of potentially exciting Schnittke compositions to be aired at the Barbican over the coming weekend is almost too numerous to detail. Of the other three big orchestral concerts, Eri Klas conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a line-up which includes the Concerto Grosso No.2, the British premiere of the Symphony No.8, very reminiscent of Shostakovich, and the riotous, lavishly-scored (Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream.The weekend closes with Leonard Slatkin turning his attention to the very Germanic and ample Third Symphony and the Faust Cantata, partly inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus about a Schoenbergian composer who sells his soul to the devil. Meanwhile a range of other concerts evince much of Schnittke’s prolific chamber output being aired, including the 1st and 2nd Piano Sonatas, the 2nd and 3rd String Quartets, and music for cello and piano, played by the composer’s friend Alexander Ivashkin and his widow Irina Schnittke.

It all amounts to what should be a tremendous Schnittke Fest. With the addition of talks, lectures and film screenings, as full a picture as we have had in Britain thus far of Schnittke’s musical soul looks promised to emerge. As Martyn Brabbins concludes: “I think the entire line-up looks set to do fantastic justice to a truly major figure, for to my mind the music of Alfred Schnittke just seizes the imagination and holds it, and won’t easily let go.”

Barbican Hall, Friday 12 January to Sunday 14 January – Boris Berman kicks off the Schnittke Festival with Piano Sonatas 1 & 2 at 6 o’clock, then Martyn Brabbins conducts the extraordinary First Symphony in the BBCSO’s first concert at 7.30. The other BBCSO concerts are on Saturday (Eri Klas conducting the Eighth Symphony) and Sunday (Leonard Slatkin leading the Third) – both at 8 o’clock. The BBC Philharmonic and Vassily Sinaisky combine two of Schnittke’s finest pieces – Cello Concerto No.2 and Concerto Grosso 4/Symphony 5 – with Torleif Thedeen as soloist on Sunday at 4.30

The world premiere of Fragment, under Martyn Brabbins, comes in the Sinfonietta’s Saturday afternoon concert, which starts at 1 o’clock

In addition there are talks, films and concerts of choral and chamber music in both the Barbican Hall and nearby St Giles, Cripplegate

Ring the Barbican Box Office on 020 7638 8891 for details of weekend passes

All concerts will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, most of them live, while some will be recorded for deferred relay or future broadcast

The Philharmonic in a Schnittke Premiere: In Memoriam …

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Review by Donal Henahan published 27 September 1985 in The New York Times

ALFRED SCHNITTKE, often mentioned as the most talented Soviet composer of the postwar generation, has been known in this country mostly by reputation. But to judge from his ”In Memoriam…”, which the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta gave its New York premiere last evening, the esteem in which he is held in avant-garde circles is not misplaced. The 1978 work, an arrangement for orchestra of his Quintet for Piano and Strings of two years earlier, made a strong impression for its instrumental skill, its haunting sonorities and power to seize and sustain a mood.

Mr. Schnittke, who is 50 years old, wrote this piece in memory of his mother, and the five movements move over a fairly narrow range of dark and anguished expression. However, within its chosen bounds, the music is imaginatively varied. This is a composer with a fine ear, perhaps above all, and his use of such instruments as the organ, piano (with finger-stopped strings) and electric guitar reflects his sensitivity to pure sound.

During the five movements, which are played without pause, one can hear or imagine hearing many fond or sadly mocking allusions to the past – Ravel’s ”La Valse,” Mahler’s band tunes and Webern’s spare textures. Persistently, too, the piece recalls the atmosphere of spookiness and dread of such Schoenberg pieces as the Op. l6 pieces and the ”Accompaniment to a Cinema Scene.” A sad little tune at the end, seemingly for solo organ, one finger, reminds one of Shostakovich and that master’s own idol, Mahler. The workmanship is polished and intricate, but it never parades its learning in the usual avant-garde manner. All in all, a piece worth hearing again.

Worth hearing, too, was Nikita Magaloff’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1. Designated as the composer’s Opus 1, this concerto is short of big, familiar tunes and is not heard with anything like the frequency of the Second and Third. It is, moreover, like most Rachmaninoff piano works in its unreal demands on the soloist. The 73-year-old Mr. Magaloff balked at nothing. Deceptively reticent in mien, he played with a patrician’s disdain for sheer flash, but there was technique aplenty in evidence. He gave an ardent, exquisitely detailed performance that had members of the audience smiling at one another in mid-phrase.

Mr. Magaloff, a renowned concert pianist, recording artist and teacher who returned to this country after a long absence last year, had not appeared with the Philharmonic since 1950. A shorter interval between his New York visits would seem only just, particularly in view of the scarcity of master pianists with his special qualities.

Mr. Mehta, who often seems to blossom when accompanying a talented soloist, went at the Rachmaninoff with great zest without, however, smothering the piano part at any time. Perhaps it is owing to his experience as an orchestral player in a previous life, but in any event he understands what it means to both support a soloist and, when necessary, take the lead.

The concert began with a large-scale reading of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, a work that is probably better known hereabouts as a Balanchine ballet than in its concert form. Mr. Mehta did not give the music a dancing lilt, but he did make the most of its sprung rhythms and symphonic richness. Anyone demanding the lean and jaunty sounds that we have come to expect in Stravinsky’s music of any period might have been disappointed. However, though Mr. Mehta’s was an odd approach to the work, in its way it was a persuasive one.

A Schnittke Premiere by the Cleveland

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Review by Donal Henahan published 4 May 1991 in The New York Times

New music frequently gets off to a weak start in the world by being played tentatively, or worse. No such problem arose for Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 5 in its world premiere at Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening. The Soviet-born composer’s score, one of 13 works commissioned by Carnegie for its centennial celebrations, received a scorchingly intense performance by its violin soloist, Gidon Kremer, whose virtuosity was matched on every page by the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnanyi.

Mr. Schnittke, now in his mid-50’s, is considered the likeliest Soviet candidate to inherit the international prestige of Shostakovich, whom he resembles more than superficially in his eclecticism (he prefers to call it “polystylism”) and tolerance for traditional forms. His Concerto Grosso No. 5 bows to the Baroque past in its title, as specified by the terms of the commission. It nonetheless resembles more closely a full-blown concerto, harmonically astringent in an unmistakably modern idiom, but in gestures indebted to 19th-century virtuoso style. All three of its movements begin with extended solos or cadenzas for the violinist, which inverts convention by putting the cart before the warhorse.

Collaborative duties are assigned to harpsichord, celesta, bells and amplified piano in a score whose sonorities are often ingeniously colorful and delicate in texture. If the title was meant as more than a convenient tag, Mr. Kremer’s part was to act as leader of the concertino, or solo group. Actually, the score required him to be virtually the whole show. And what a show he made of it. Playing almost without letup throughout a half-hour of extraordinarily taxing fiddling, Mr. Kremer sustained interest in the work even when it fell back on seemingly aimless figuration and empty bravura.

For a narrative scaffolding, the composer uses the seasons of the year, though his own notes in the program omitted mention of a summer. Instead, there are two sections depicting winter, which may reflect a realistic Russian view of the matter. The most puzzling aspect of the work, however, is the restricted role of the offstage amplified piano, played in this instance by Alexander Slobodyanik. It enters the work with one fortissimo note cluster to shut off the first movement, then does not appear until the end of the second, when it heaves a deep five-measure sigh in consort with the violin.

The piano returns briefly in the final pages, joining the violin in a slow, dreamlike coda that dies away in a ghostly manner reminiscent of George Crumb’s Lorca-inspired pieces from the 1960’s. A few barely audible string harmonics, then nothingness. Mr. Kremer’s technical control and sensitivity made the moment portentous, though its connection with what went before remained unclear.

Mr. Kremer and Mr. Dohnanyi teamed no less effectively in a taut performance of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a 1967 work in which politically oriented critics discern reflections of an aging composer’s sadness and frustration over a career spent under the Kremlin’s yoke.

Mr. Kremer must hear those sounds in the work, too; at any rate, his interpretation was persistently grim and harsh, hardly relaxing to savor even the laconic parodies of the opening movement or the rock-a-bye gentleness of the second. His slashing, driving style, however, made the finale into a series of pyrotechnic bursts, almost persuading one that Shostakovich was not always as unhappy in his work as some commentators would have us believe.

Works of Dark and Light By Russian Composers

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Review by James R. Oestreich published 22 February 1994 in The New York Times

For at least half a century, music critics in New York have fretted that the city’s musical institutions partake too little of its intellectual life. Recent attempts to revive a moribund musical world have included several brainy jolts administered with mixed success by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein. But the program Mr. Botstein presented on Friday evening at Avery Fisher Hall, a fascinating juxtaposition of works by Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina, drew impetus from a less likely source, the long-maligned New York Philharmonic.

Virgil Thomson dismissed the Philharmonic as irrelevant to the city’s intellectual life in 1940, and listeners in the 80’s had reason to wonder whether the orchestra was even a factor in the city’s musical life. But Kurt Masur has given a more thoughtful cast to programming and audience-building, and the Philharmonic’s recent Composer Week, devoted to Mr. Schnittke, set a broader agenda in and around the city, spawning an informal festival. The American Symphony program was merely the latest in a remarkable outpouring of performances and discussions of Mr. Schnittke’s music and that of other former Soviet composers.

If “merely” is the word for two such imposing creations. The Schnittke entry was “Seid Nuchtern und Wachet” (“Be Sober and Watchful”), a cantata from 1983 on the Faust story, or rather its sorry conclusion. Perhaps taking his cue from Thomas Mann’s novel “Doctor Faustus,” Mr. Schnittke uses a folk-based German text from 1587, published by Johann Shpiece, in which stern moralizing is buttressed by a lurid account of Faust’s fate. (“. . . The chamber was splattered with blood./His brain was clinging to the wall,/Because the devil had flung him/From one wall to the other.”)

Mr. Schnittke’s compelling work (since expanded into an opera) begins as a parody Passion, with tenor narrator, baritone protagonist and countertenor tempter. But it takes a bizarre turn in the grisly denouement, when a husky, vampish mezzo-soprano picks up the tale to a grim and relentless tango beat.

Joyce Castle, crooning her way through the aisles with a hand-held microphone, delivered the knockout blow to harrowing effect. Michael Hayes was an earnest narrator, Jan Opalach an affecting Faust, Derek Lee Ragin an unearthly beguiler. The Concert Chorale of New York joined the orchestra, and Mr. Botstein kept a tight rein on the sprawling affair.

Miss Gubaidulina’s “Allelujia,” too, offered an extramusical conceit, a light show, but it was overshadowed not only by the grandly theatrical gesture at the heart of the Schnittke but also by Miss Gubaidulina’s powerful score. Or at least powerful music, for the use of colored lights is fully specified in the score and meant to be integral to the work.

Be that as it may, earlier performances have done without lights, and even this lighted premiere was termed experimental by the composer in a preconcert discussion. The notion, evidently, is to enhance the mystic character of the quasi-religious text with ambient lighting of varying hues and intensities. The American Symphony, unable to command and transform the hall for the purpose, gamely constructed a “color organ,” a system of spotlights onstage, activated by a keyboard.

The results were anticlimactic and distracting. Until Miss Gubaidulina’s conception can be realized in full (and maybe even then), the music is better heard neat.

Recalling a Composer’s Two Sides, Light and Dark

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Review by Allan Kozinn published 29 April 1999 in The New York Times

There are two warring impulses in the music of Alfred Schnittke, the Russian composer who died last year. One is a sense of humor that takes the form of peculiar juxtapositions, allusions to other composers and styles, and thwarted expectations. The other is a seemingly implacable bleakness. Some works favor one of these qualities; in others, both fight for primacy.
”Remembering Alfred Schnittke,” a tribute on Monday evening at Alice Tully Hall, put these elements in high relief. The performers were billed as the Winnipesaukee Chamber Players and represented the Lake Winnipesaukee Music Festival, in New Hampshire.

Mostly it was a family affair: Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, was the pianist in an energetic, mercurial account of the Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1994). Her partner was Oleh Krysa, a violinist for whom Schnittke wrote several works. With Mr. Krysa’s son, Peter, also a violinist, and Peter’s wife, Rachel Lewis Krysa, a cellist, Mrs. Schnittke played the Piano Trio (1992), a work that has a Shostakovich-like pessimism, but also a recurring figure in which repeating arpeggios bring Philip Glass’s music to mind. In other works Tatiana Tchekina, the wife of Oleh Krysa, was the pianist. (Adrienne Sommerville, a violist, performed without apparent family ties.)

The concert began with a work by Mahler, a Piano Quartet movement, composed in 1876. Mahler, at 16, had not yet found his own voice; here he used Dvorak’s. The work was included as a preface to Schnittke’s Piano Quartet (1988), which uses Mahler’s sketches for a second movement as a springboard. The Schnittke piece begins as a work of dark consonance and grows increasingly dense and hazy before the Mahler fragment lightens the mood.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a work that showed Schnittke’s light-spirited and dark sides in equal measure, the Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Two Violins, Harpsichord, Prepared Piano and String Orchestra (1977). Ms. Tchekina brought an appealing vividness to the two keyboard parts (the prepared piano was made to sound like a Chinese percussion orchestra); Oleh and Peter Krysa played the violin lines with the flexibility necessary for its deft leaps between quasi-Baroque and searing modernist styles. And the Eastman Virtuosi, a student string orchestra, gave a polished, robust performance under the baton of Bradley Lubman.

A Schnittke Tribute to Berg Echoing ‘Happy Birthday’

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 18, 2007

Review by Anthony Tommasini, published 22May 1999 in The New York Times

Alfred Schnittke, who died last year at 63, has acquired almost a cult following in the last two decades. Yet musicians seem to be divided about his music. For some, Schnittke is an affecting musical mystic who defies categories. For others he is a pretentious purveyor of mumbo-jumbo with a penchant for pastiche.

I tend to side with the latter group, though I keep trying to hear what his advocates do, including the fine string players from the new-music ensemble Speculum Musicae, who presented ”Remembering Alfred Schnittke” on Monday night in the Great Hall at Cooper Union.
The players also gave the United States premiere of ”Humble River” for flute, violin, viola and cello, by the American composer Steven Mackey. This, too, is hard-to-categorize music. But with its vitality and lucidity it clobbered the two Schnittke works.

Schnittke’s String Trio was composed in 1985 to commemorate the centenary of Alban Berg’s birth, and the music evokes Berg in its wayward harmonic language and pervasive angst. At the same time Schnittke uses the rhythm, but not the notes, of the opening phrase of ”Happy Birthday” as a linking motive throughout the piece, a potentially interesting mix of the serious and the banal. But the repetition of the rhythmic figure gets wearisome, especially since so much is laid out in four-squared, separated phrases.

The String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1981, is more engaging, especially the buzzing frenzy of the Agitato movement when all four strings play churning, relentless riffs. Schnittke’s thick, weird harmonies are often fascinating. Structural coherence is not the goal. The music evolves according to his instincts, it seems, and if you resist giving yourself over to it, your mind wanders. Mine did, though the violinists Curtis Macomber and Carol Zeavin, the violist Maureen Gallagher and the cellist John Whitfield played with admirable intensity and command.
Mr. Mackey conceived his 30-minute ”Humble River” as a flowing musical stream. Between its five parts, he suggests that the four Mozart Flute Quartets could be performed, becoming islands the audience visits during the river journey.

As played here, with the flutist Susan Palma Nidel joining the ensemble, ”Humble River” worked arrestingly on its own. The music begins with atmospheric stirrings and slowly gains in rhythmic profile and gestural character. There are moaning slides for strings marked ”flabby, pathetic” in the score. The music then tries to find a rhythmic groove, but the ecstatic flute and sputtering strings keep everything sounding fractured. It was exhilarating in comparison with the Schnittke.

CD Reviews

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 17, 2007

ALFRED SCHNITTKE (1934-1998) Cello Concerto No. 2 (1990) [42.00] (K)ein Sommernachstraum (1974) [10.37] Alexander Ivashkin (cello) Russian State SO/Valery Polyansky CHANDOS CHAN 9722 [52.50]

Schnittke’s concerto is blackly and bleakly rhapsodic with a pretty assertive vein of dissonance. Alexander Ivashkin’s flammable playing reminded me of the young Arto Noras (his Sallinen, Kokkonen and Bliss performances are treasure-house material). One cannot help but be impressed. In addition Ivashkin also wrote the liner notes.

The concerto is a disquieting nightmare. Notable snapshots include the abrasive ghoulish whinnying of the cello at 1:22. A hair-raising sound. The cello is recorded very forwardly. I would have liked a more commanding presence for the orchestra especially as it positively heaves with detail. The slow-stepping grave is overwhelming and Schnittke’s beloved harpsichord puts in an appearance here. The final passacaglia is longest of the five movements at 16.05 and draws on a theme from his music for the film Agony. The film score is recorded on OLYMPIA OCD606 and is well worth seeking out (Schnittke’s film music is not to be dismissed). All in all, in this concerto, Schnittke beats the Scandinavians at the gloom game. This is a depressive compelling whirlpool of a work.

The brief Sommernachtstraum’s dislocated clockwork rains down dissonant drifts of notes. This is Mozart (often unfiltered) slipping backwards and forwards in time, melting through mirrors and windows and lost in some crazed inner-world circus.

The element of dissonance is strong in these works but an underlying sense of melody is never far away.

Articulate music meet for hardier ears ready for a challenge.

Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Music for the Movies:
My Past and Thoughts (1973)
Agony (1974)
The End of St. Petersburg (Ca. 1990)
The Master and Margarita (1993)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Frank Strobel.
Recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin, Haus des Rundfunks Berlin April 9-10 1996, June 16-17 1998 and June 30 1999 DDD
CPO 999 796-2 [60:07]

It is an astonishing statistic that between the years of 1961 and 1984 Alfred Schnittke produced no less than sixty film scores. They included music for modern films as well as revivalist scores for silent movies and a number of cartoon films. At the same time as producing these scores at the rate of nearly three a year, Schnittke managed to continue to amass a substantial catalogue of work for the concert hall with many of his concert works, not surprisingly perhaps, often incorporating thematic ideas from the particular film score he was working on at the time. Sadly many of these films are not available outside Russia and it is inevitable that a good number of the scores themselves have been lost never to be found. Indeed, it is largely down to the conductor on this disc, Frank Strobel, who enjoyed a close working relationship with the composer, that we are able to hear several of the film scores that have thus come to light.

It has to be said that the music presented on this disc is not always Schnittke at his best, yet his polystylistic language was finely suited to the medium of film and nearly all of the music is highly characteristic and immediately recognisable as his work. Musically, it is My Past and Thoughts and Agony that have the most flesh on their bones, The End of St. Petersburg and The Master and Margarita coming from the early 1990s by which time the composer had already suffered serious ill health, his compositional style having undergone a radical change to a sparser, even severe economy of means. That said, the latest work in particular, The Master and Margarita, does show many a glimpse of his earlier stylistic traits and is notable for a quite startling take on Ravel’s Bolero. In point of fact, references to well known tunes abound throughout these scores, including the Marseillaise and the Russian Imperial Anthem, sometimes firmly tongue in cheek, sometimes transfigured into grotesque musical caricature.

My Past and Thoughts was not positively identified until after Schnittke’s death, the music originally having been assigned to another film altogether. Framed by an eerie representation of St. Petersburg for chorus and orchestra (what is left of the original material is strongly choral), the inner movements range from a tender homage to the Madonna, again with chorus and solo violin which Schnittke proceeds to “distort” in the ensuing movement, to a lively Can Can, very much in the manner of Shostakovich in film mode.

In contrast to the brief extracts that make up the suite from My Past and Thoughts, Agony comprises four more expansive movements, once again framed by related outer movements, in this case a passacaglia which is stirringly dominated by side-drum and brass to begin whilst treated more reflectively to conclude before building to a strident conclusion. The wonderfully macabre waltz and tango that form the central panels (the tango surfaces in several other Schnittke works) are in sharp contrast, yet combine to form what I feel is probably the most musically satisfying of the four suites. This despite the fact that this particular suite was reconstructed with great difficulty after the original was destroyed by the Soviet authorities as a result of its “subversive” subject matter involving Rasputin’s influence over the Tsar.

The brief suite from The End of St. Petersburg, Schnittke’s first score for a silent film, was composed jointly by the composer and his son Andrey who produced parts for live electronics. Overall I find it to be less effective than its predecessors, the changes in Schnittke’s compositional language evident if not as accentuated as in the works for the concert hall. Interestingly The Master and Margarita of three years later is clearly more reminiscent of his earlier style and all the more effective for it. The aforementioned extraordinary treatment of Ravel’s Bolero represents Satan’s ball at which all manner of villains and demons present themselves. Demonic and grotesque it certainly is, not to mention brilliant in its inspiration.

Bringing this music to disc has clearly been a labour of love for Frank Strobel who should to be applauded for his efforts. The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin play with genuine commitment and although, perhaps inevitably, the music is variable in its effectiveness, anyone with an interest in Schnittke’s music should not be without it.

Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934 – 1998)
Concerto No. 3 for Violin and Chamber Orchestra*
Moderato – Agitato – Andante
Sonata No.2 “Quasi una Sonata”**
A Paganini for solo violin
Levon Ambartsumian, Violin
Anatoly Sheludyakov, Piano**
*Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra/Mikhail Kukushkin
Recorded: Georgia, USA 2001
PHOENIX PHCD 150 [57:46]

This excellent disc includes some of Schnittke’s most accomplished violin works. His pieces are not instantly accessible – their eclecticism can be disconcerting – but his fragmented use of many familiar forms and stylistic ideas is easy to follow (the concerto and sonata on this disc both remain rooted strictly in a classical form). However, these polystylistic structures are complicated further by Schnittke’s flexible 20th-century approach to tonality – these in turn causes the harsh dissonances that are at first apparent.

Schnittke’s use of ‘polystylism’ poses an interesting philosophical argument: he argues that, in the modern age, ‘our concepts of time and space have undergone drastic transformations’ and therefore the ‘idea of the universal character of culture, of its integrity, seems particularly apt’. Schnittke has a point: in an age of rampant globalisation and international communication, a degree of cultural fusion is bound to occur, and his composition can be seen as a statement of this.

With this in mind, the Violin Concerto No. 3 does not seem especially avant-garde; the wind textures of the first movement Moderato often resemble Strauss, and dissonance is caused mainly by the violin line grating against the orchestral harmony. The Agitato second movement feels appropriately uncomfortable, and the forceful, unsettled temperament always pushes the piece forward. The writing becomes intensely anguished as it dissolves into the third movement, Andante, which is the focal point of the Concerto; the opening drone notes of the soloist are deeply haunting, and are precursors to the dark, foreboding ending, where Schnittke reveals an altogether more ominous compositional voice. The Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra are immaculate throughout, and Michail Kukushkin elicits from them an enchanting sense of subtlety and nuance. The same can be said for soloist Levon Ambartsumian, who echoes and leads with integrity, sensitively alternating between the solo and accompanimental voices that Schnittke’s writing demands.

After such a volatile work, Sonata No. 2 (thoughtfully subtitled ‘Sensa tempo’) is something of a contrast. This was Schnittke’s very first polystylistic experiment, and it contains a range of searing contrasts and unexpected (gimmicky?) dissonances – isolated moments that seem almost designed to shock and provoke the listener. An enforced struggle between harmony and disharmony ensues; this is Schnittke’s metaphor for the conflict between the musical styles of the past and present respectively, and it is significant that the sonata never finds a conclusive centre in one tonality or another. Schnittke takes this concept further by introducing themes of Liszt (the B-A-C-H motif which Liszt adapted), and Beethoven (from Variations, Op.35) then tainting them with atonality, in order to ‘[rule] out the possibility of pure harmony in today’s disjunct world’.

It is unfair to judge a violinist on the harsh sonorities of Schnittke alone, but the virtuosic playing of violinist Levon Ambartsumian (b.1955) is outstanding. As a prodigy of the former Eastern Bloc, Ambartsumian’s reputation is confined mainly to Eastern Europe, and although since 1988 he has toured in Europe and taken residence in the USA, he is largely unknown in the West. On this disc, his sound is often intense, suiting the harshness and dissonances of the writing, yet he also finds room for moments of tenderness. The virtuoso requirements of the sonata and A Paganini are faultlessly executed with apparent ease.

A Paganini is a witty and mischievous piece with which to end the disc. A juxtaposition of harsh chords and snatches of melody from the 24 Caprices of Paganini, it is a nightmarishly dissonant take on the great violin maestro’s devilish composition, and an appropriately unnerving note on which to end.

Seeking the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on June 16, 2007

Barbican Hall, St Giles, Cripplegate & Guildhall School of Music and Drama 11- 14 January 2001

Review by Richard Whitehouse

In one respect, the BBC’s retrospective Seeking the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke came too late. The composer died in August 1998, having endured a series of strokes during the preceding 13 years that finally silenced his creativity. In all other respects, the beginning of the new millennium is an ideal time to explore the music of one often been referred to as the last great twentieth-century composer. No one who attended even a proportion of the BBC’s weekend’s concerts, talks and films could come away without a sense of Schnittke’s legacy, and what it might represent as a cultural touchstone for the future.

In addition, students at the Guildhall School had been exploring the composer in depth throughout the week in sessions open to the public, and they also played some of Schnittke’s music at pre-concert events in the Barbican foyer. It is doubtful whether any comparable survey in breadth and depth has taken place before.
The valuable programme book has an introduction by cellist Professor Alexander Ivashkin, Schnittke’s biographer (Phaidon Press) and curator of the Schnittke Archive at the Centre for Russian Music, Goldsmiths College, from which the many of the numerous photos of the composer were supplied.

Like so many Soviet composers of the 1930s generation, Schnittke passed through his formative years with scant knowledge of post-war developments in the West. Most of his pre-1963 music he later disowned, though the First Violin Concerto of 1957, closely modelled on that by Shostakovich with an accommodating nod towards Khachaturian, has been revived by such as Mark Lubotsky and Gidon Kremer, and would have been welcome as a counterweight to the numerous concertos written during Schnittke’s creative apex of the late 1970s and ’80s.

From his brief but significant Modernist phase, 1964’s Music for Piano and Chamber Orchestra is a graphic demonstration of the 30-year-old composer struggling to find an equilibrium between serial orthodoxy and personal expression. Inese Klotina made little interpretative sense of the solo part, and it was thanks to Jason Lai’s clear-headed direction of the Guildhall Sinfonietta that the performance cohered as it did. The absence of the Second Violin Sonata from 1968, where Schnittke breaks through to an altogether more pluralist discourse, was a regrettable omission, though the Serenade which preceded it was included. A study in calculated anarchy, it clearly caught the imagination of the Guildhall student musicians, and prepared the way for the First Symphony which featured in Friday evening’s concert.

Completed, after a three year gestation, in 1972, and allowed a premiere in the “closed city” of Gorky two years later, this is a defining, and certainly the most notorious work in Schnittke’s output. Yet remarkably, its impact in the cynical, “anything goes” cultural climate of the present, is emphatically not that of a period piece. Its precipitate examination – not to say violation – of 300 years of Western music has a deep seriousness and anger that makes its point no less keenly today. Moreover, the orchestra as an instrument of exploitation and protestation is conveyed with choreographic skill. Conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins was a fluent master of ceremonies; eschewing the palpable sense of anarchy that Gennady Rozhdestvensky brought to the 1986 UK premiere (an event which effctively put Schnittke on the musical map here), he extracted as much intrinsic musical worth from the piece as its overtly polemical stance allows. Following on from Boris Berman’s commanding early evening account of the granitic First Piano Sonata, Schnittke in formidably abstract vein, this was a memorable occasion.

The death of Schnittke’s mother in 1972 added an emotional facet to the intellectual conviction that a musically more contained and inclusive idiom needed to be evolved. The Piano Quintet, begun that years but not completed until 1976, is surely a more powerful demonstration of the “less is more” aesthetic than almost anything written since (though the late works of Feldman and Nono, who themselves embarked on major new stylistic directions at this time, need to be considered here). In its pained introspection and final transcendence, this remains a work where musical and emotional expression are not so much fused as sublimed into something other. Saturday’s performance by Alexey Lubimov and the Keller Quartet (following the latter’s fervent accounts of the Second and Third String Quartets) was perceptive and probing, though the acoustic of St Giles, Cripplegate inevitably distanced the musical experience.

Schnittke’s creative maturity saw him amass a substantial output, generously represented in these concerts. The level of intrinsic musical quality varies widely: the First Concerto Grosso of 1977 remains a model of inspired, regenerative pastiche (though Clio Gould and Joan Atherton were a shade studied in their solo roles), a process which falls down when transferred to the full orchestral apparatus of its successor, which not even superb playing from Gidon Kremer and cellist Marta Sudraba could rescue from indulgence. Conversely, the elegant baroque-isms of the Third Concerto Grosso emerged with real freshness in the hands of Daniela Jung and Sarah Kim (Jason Lai again the admirable accompanist), while the Fourth Violin Concerto was powerfully realised by dedicatee Gidon Kremer. Those curious to know what makes Schnittke’s handling of large-scale form and the orchestra so distinctive need look no further: everything that came to define his music is here, from the resourceful integration of percussion and electric guitars into the texture, to the emotional reach that can extend beyond the intrinsically musical. The more popular Viola Concerto is essentially a coarsening of this achievement, though Maxim Rysanov played with a commitment that amply recalled Yuri Bashmet in his prime. Dating from 1990 and 1991 respectively, the Second Cello Concerto and Fifth Concerto Grosso were rather lost in the headlong creative rush prior to Schnittke’s second stroke, and their revival was necessary. In particular, the long closing passacaglia of the concerto, eloquently played by Torleif Thedéen, brings a new level of motivic self-sufficiency into play that would become a hallmark of his work from the 1990s.

None of Schnittke’s three operas was featured, but two major choral works from the mid-1980s made a striking impression. The Faust Cantata, “Seid nüchtern und wachet”’, a wonderfully irreverent treatment of Johann Spies’s lurid 1587 urtext, and with Susan Bickley a believably Mephistophelian cabaret artist, rounded off the weekend uproariously. Yet Friday’s late evening performance of the Concerto for Choir made the more profound impression: Schnittke drawing on and revitalizing the Russian liturgical tradition with breathtaking immediacy. The BBC Singers’ occasional intonational fallibility added to the feeling of a living ritual, as did the acoustic halo provided by St Giles. The resonance of the occasion persisted in the Saturday morning recital, where Irina Schnittke – widow of the composer and a pianist of some stature – and cellist Alexander Ivashkin gave an absorbing recital; the latter’s flexible and humane tone finding pathos in the anguish of the First Cello Sonata (1978), a work in which Schnittke continues on from Shostakovich in depicting an oppressive reality and rendering it cathartic.

Save for the Second, Sixth and questionably complete Ninth (whose Kremlin premiere in 1998 brought the dying composer into unfortunate confrontation with Rozhdestvensky), Schnittke’s symphonies were well represented. The Third (1981), an unwieldy if compulsive attempt to encapsulate Western music in under an hour, was clearly relished by Leonard Slatkin. Martyn Brabbins gave a lucid, if slightly passive account of the Fourth (1984), where varying religious strands cross-fertilise with each other to intriguing and haunting effect. Symphony No. 5 is generally considered Schnittke’s symphonic masterpiece, and made a visceral impact in the hands of Vassily Sinaisky and the BBC Philharmonic, though the inhibited effect of the sonata-allegro third movement suggests a further parallel between Schnittke and his inferred mentor Shostakovich. The last three “realized” symphonies from 1992-4 form a trilogy of austere but never arid sensibility. Living as it were on borrowed time, Schnittke streamlined the medium to intensify the message: whether in the blackly humorous Seventh, a sort of russified Malcolm Arnold that the Guildhall Symphony players evidently responded to; or the valedictory Eighth, movingly realised by Eri Klas (little known here, and from whom further visits would be welcome), with its central Lento of pale radiance, and conclusion of unexpected yet utter transcendence. Where Schnittke was headed next can be gleaned from the torso of a cantata he was writing for the London Sinfonietta. Instrumental movements unnervingly reminiscent of Webern’s and Stravinsky’s orchestral variations framed an other-worldly text for alto and percussion: in essence a “requiem canticles” that the composer was destined to leave unfinished.

The question persists as to whether Schnittke’s music will prove durable over time. The present occasion, with substantial but (except for St Giles) not capacity audiences, many of them far from untutored in the composer’s idiom, gave no unequivocal answer. Yet some dozen of the works mentioned here possess that combination of cultural and intrinsic musical worth needed to speak to listeners of the future.

For all his creative unevenness, Alfred Schnittke has a voice recognizably his own; one which offers, if not the certainty, then at least the possibility of creative renewal.

Selective discography

Symphony No 1
Russian State SO/Rozhdestvensky
Chandos CHAN 9417

Piano Quintet
Smirnov/Kremer/Grindenko/Bashmet/Georgian
BMG Melodiya 74321 56284-2

Concerto Grosso No 1
Kremer/Grindenko/Chamber Orch Europe
Deutsche Grammophon 445 520-2GMA

Cello Sonata No 1
Ivashkin/Irina Schnittke
Chandos CHAN 9705

Symphony No 3
Stockholm PO/Klas
BIS CD-477

String Quartet No 3
Borodin Quartet
Virgin Classics VC7 91436-2

Faust Cantata
Malmö Symphony Chorus & Orch/DePriest
BIS CD-437

Violin Concerto No 4
Kremer/Philharmonia Orch/Eschenbach
Teldec 3984-26966-2 (2CDs, with Violin Concertos 1-3)

Concerto for Choir
Russian State Symphony Capella/Polyansky
Chandos CHAN 9332

Symphony No 5 (Concerto Grosso No 4)
Concertgebouw Orch/Chailly
Decca 430 698-2DH

Cello Concerto No 2
Thedéen/Malmö SO/Markiz
BIS CD-567

Symphony No 8
Stockholm SO/Rozhdestvensky
Chandos CHAN 9559

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