Schnittke Recordings Reviewed
Published 12 August 1995 in The New York Times.
Here are some favorite contemporary recordings of the classical-music critics of The New York Times. Availability is hard to determine in the current market. Most of the recordings here can be found on Amazon.com or in major record stores. Prices range from $10.98 to $19.98 for one CD to $47.98 for two CD’s to $50.98 for three CD’s to $67.98 for a four-CD set.
Alfred Schnittke by JAMES R. OESTREICH
CONCERTI GROSSI NOS. 1 AND 5, ‘QUASI UNA SONATA’ Gidon Kremer, violinist, and others; Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Heinrich Schiff and Mr. Kremer; Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi (Deutsche Grammophon 471 626-2; CD).
CONCERTO FOR PIANO AND STRINGS, CONCERTO FOR OBOE AND HARP, CONCERTO GROSSO I Roland Pontinen, pianist, and others; New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lev Markiz (Bis 377; CD).
PIANO QUINTET, STRING QUARTETS NOS. 2 AND 3 Gary Graffman, pianist; Lark Quartet (Arabesque Recordings Z6707; CD).
‘FAUST CANTATA’, ‘RITUAL’, ‘(K)EIN SOMMERNACHSTRAUM’, PASSACAGLIA Inger Blom, mezzo-soprano, and others; Malmo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James DePreist and Leif Segerstam (Bis 437; CD).
CHOIR CONCERTO, ‘MINNESANG’ Danish National Radio Choir, conducted by Stefan Parkman (Chandos 9126; CD).
ALFRED SCHNITTKE first caught my attention, and presumably that of many others in the West, in the early 1980s, with his gleefully anachronistic cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto, as performed in a Philips recording by Gidon Kremer. The brashness and inventiveness of those few minutes of music have carried through the many hours of original – and I do mean original – Schnittke heard since. His style, eclectic and often pointedly atonal, irritates or, more often, assaults the ears only to turn around and seduce them shamelessly, opening into heavenly harmonies.
Admirably, Mr. Kremer has faithfully continued his advocacy of Schnittke, who died in 1998 (and of any number of other lesser-known composers). Mr. Kremer’s Teldec recording of the four violin concertos, with various orchestras conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, is eminently recommendable. But I am especially fond of Mr. Kremer’s work in the mercurial concerti grossi.
His sizzling performance in the Concerto Grosso I will spoil you for most others, including the one on Bis. (Listen to the way he seizes on the fleeting quotation from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.) But the prime attraction on that Bis disc is a sharply defined performance of the Concerto for Piano and Strings by Roland Pontinen and the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Lev Markiz. Here it is Tchaikovsky’s “1812” that is savaged, or at least the liturgical tune used in it. Pummeling pianism – cannonry of sorts – gives way to transcendence and ultimately to calm.
The Quintet for Piano and Strings follows a similar contour but ends in glorious apotheosis. Like the piano concerto, this work, with a rudimentary piano part, has been recorded often. But Gary Graffman’s performance speaks with special eloquence. Mr. Graffman seems to be investing all the artistry that remains to him after the loss of pianistic use of his right hand.
My most riveting Schnittke experience came in a 1994 concert by the American Symphony Orchestra, presented by Leon Botstein, a conductor much, and often unfairly, maligned. The work was the “Faust Cantata” (later expanded into an opera), a setting of a graphically gory text that long antedated Goethe’s, dripping with irony and sarcasm. In the astonishing climax, the besequined mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle slunk down an aisle, singing a harrowing number to a tango-like beat. It was the height of anomaly.
The effect loses something on disc but works well enough in another Bis recording, featuring the husky mezzo-soprano Inger Blom, with James DePreist conducting the Malmo Symphony. And this disc has other mighty attractions, starting with “Ritual”. If you didn’t know that the work was written in memory of the victims of World War II, you might find it, in its pacing and dynamic shape, a remarkable simulation of the sex act. It is, in any case, fulfilling.
“(K)ein Sommernachtstraum”, “(Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, represents Schnittke the scamp, as he gnaws at the edges of a Classical-sounding rondo. Here, as in “Ritual”, Leif Segerstam draws a compelling performance from the Malmo Symphony.
But Schnittke can also be respectful. Hear, for example, his nods toward Russian Orthodox style in his Choir Concerto, inevitably laced with dissonance, but mildly so.
And all of this only begins to suggest the parameters of a strange and wondrous musical sensibility. Your own further adventures will be more rewarding for being your own.