Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

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.


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