Seeking the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke
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.
Symphony No 1
Russian State SO/Rozhdestvensky
Chandos CHAN 9417
BMG Melodiya 74321 56284-2
Concerto Grosso No 1
Kremer/Grindenko/Chamber Orch Europe
Deutsche Grammophon 445 520-2GMA
Cello Sonata No 1
Chandos CHAN 9705
Symphony No 3
String Quartet No 3
Virgin Classics VC7 91436-2
Malmö Symphony Chorus & Orch/DePriest
Violin Concerto No 4
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)
Decca 430 698-2DH
Cello Concerto No 2
Symphony No 8
Chandos CHAN 9559