A Schnittke Tribute to Berg Echoing ‘Happy Birthday’
Review by Anthony Tommasini, published 22May 1999 in The New York Times
Alfred Schnittke, who died last year at 63, has acquired almost a cult following in the last two decades. Yet musicians seem to be divided about his music. For some, Schnittke is an affecting musical mystic who defies categories. For others he is a pretentious purveyor of mumbo-jumbo with a penchant for pastiche.
I tend to side with the latter group, though I keep trying to hear what his advocates do, including the fine string players from the new-music ensemble Speculum Musicae, who presented ”Remembering Alfred Schnittke” on Monday night in the Great Hall at Cooper Union.
The players also gave the United States premiere of ”Humble River” for flute, violin, viola and cello, by the American composer Steven Mackey. This, too, is hard-to-categorize music. But with its vitality and lucidity it clobbered the two Schnittke works.
Schnittke’s String Trio was composed in 1985 to commemorate the centenary of Alban Berg’s birth, and the music evokes Berg in its wayward harmonic language and pervasive angst. At the same time Schnittke uses the rhythm, but not the notes, of the opening phrase of ”Happy Birthday” as a linking motive throughout the piece, a potentially interesting mix of the serious and the banal. But the repetition of the rhythmic figure gets wearisome, especially since so much is laid out in four-squared, separated phrases.
The String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1981, is more engaging, especially the buzzing frenzy of the Agitato movement when all four strings play churning, relentless riffs. Schnittke’s thick, weird harmonies are often fascinating. Structural coherence is not the goal. The music evolves according to his instincts, it seems, and if you resist giving yourself over to it, your mind wanders. Mine did, though the violinists Curtis Macomber and Carol Zeavin, the violist Maureen Gallagher and the cellist John Whitfield played with admirable intensity and command.
Mr. Mackey conceived his 30-minute ”Humble River” as a flowing musical stream. Between its five parts, he suggests that the four Mozart Flute Quartets could be performed, becoming islands the audience visits during the river journey.
As played here, with the flutist Susan Palma Nidel joining the ensemble, ”Humble River” worked arrestingly on its own. The music begins with atmospheric stirrings and slowly gains in rhythmic profile and gestural character. There are moaning slides for strings marked ”flabby, pathetic” in the score. The music then tries to find a rhythmic groove, but the ecstatic flute and sputtering strings keep everything sounding fractured. It was exhilarating in comparison with the Schnittke.