A Schnittke Premiere by the Cleveland
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.