Concerto for Piano and Strings
A programme note by Susan Bradshaw.
Royal Albert Hall, Monday 29 July 1991
Lothar Zagrosek, conductor
Paul Crossley, piano
The programme cost £1.
This one-movement concerto dates from 1979. On his own admission, the composer had some difficulty deciding what kind of a piece to write in fulfilment of his own long-standing wish to compose a work for the Soviet virtuoso Vladimir Krainev – so much so that he was forced to postpone the premiere. It was only then that he was inspired by a dream-like vision of ‘avoided banality’, in which, as in a dream, ‘monotonous rhythms glide past’, along with ‘passive successions of repeating chords, braided shadows of polyphonic canons and surrealistic scraps of orthodox church music’. The ongoing struggle to ‘strike a balance between “sunshine” and “storm-clouds”’ ends on the brink of ‘a new uncertainty – perhaps not without hope’.
With these words, Schnittke sets the scene for a thought-provoking amalgam of superficially dissimilar ideas; musically rather than technically demanding, the concerto sets out to unite rather than to oppose the unblendable colours of piano and strings – even to minimize the contrast between solo and tutti, as between tonal and atonal, tune and accompaniment. For long stretches, the piano appears to be playing the accompaniment to a ‘tune’ that exists only by implication – until it gradually becomes apparent that its slow-moving chord progression are themselves to form one of the main ‘themes’ of the work.
The opening solo quickly establishes a minor/major ambivalence which, when superposed, easily folds into chromatic clusters – later to emerge as a twelve-note melody based on a rising/falling pattern of overlapping thirds. But it is the six opening chords rather than the repeated notes of the ensuing recitative (which play a separate, equally influential, thematic role) which are most often repeated intact – initially by the piano, Bach-like, then by the strings, before opening out into a brief but triumphant evocation of a hymn of praise. The first appearance of a twelve-note melody (on the strings) is quickly pushed into the harmonic background as the piano repeats its chordal theme in more insistent triplets.
Still more insistently, the central Allegro begins with the chordal theme as the basis of a prolonged ostinato for piano and strings, eventually to be restated by the strings alone at the original pitch – so preparing for a blaze of the C major hymn before embarking on a quasi-improvised dialogue between piano (molto rubato) and pizzicato double bass. Incorporating further traces of the chord sequence as it approaches the next section, the twelve-note row really comes into its own as a recurring theme in Tempo di valse: at first in the bass, it threads itself upwards through the texture in the manner of a passacaglia –gradually increasing the speed of its rotations until, having reached the topmost line, it effects a climactic broadening. The solo cadenza then begins by quietly expanding upon the various elements in its own opening statement – adopting an overtly virtuoso manner only as the repetitions take on an increasingly frantic urgency towards the close.
The recapitulation begins in peremptory mood, presenting a foreshortened version of the opening chord sequence (on the strings) and an expanded version of the hymn – before settling with chromatic abandon onto a cluster chord spanning almost four octaves, each note of which is characterized by an individually-voiced major or minor triad (twenty-two in all). As the piano pursues a chromatic ascent through this close-woven texture, the individual string voices conclude their pulsating rotations in succession, drawing to a halt on the lowest note of each triad so as to leave the ambit reduced by half as the piano reaches, and then repeats, a high-lying ostinato.
The gently retrospective coda restores the ordered chromaticism of the twelve-note row – now so widely spaced in time and veiled by elements belonging to the initial material as to be scarcely perceptible as separate from it. This makes way for a return of the opening sequence in its original form (the first twelve bars), for a brief flurry associated with the earlier cluster, and for the final twelve-part cadence chord: built up a note at a time by sustaining each pitch of the melody in turn, it is completed as the piano is left inconclusively, but ‘perhaps not without hope’, sounding the final note of the row.