The Philharmonic in a Schnittke Premiere: In Memoriam …
Review by Donal Henahan published 27 September 1985 in The New York Times
ALFRED SCHNITTKE, often mentioned as the most talented Soviet composer of the postwar generation, has been known in this country mostly by reputation. But to judge from his ”In Memoriam…”, which the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta gave its New York premiere last evening, the esteem in which he is held in avant-garde circles is not misplaced. The 1978 work, an arrangement for orchestra of his Quintet for Piano and Strings of two years earlier, made a strong impression for its instrumental skill, its haunting sonorities and power to seize and sustain a mood.
Mr. Schnittke, who is 50 years old, wrote this piece in memory of his mother, and the five movements move over a fairly narrow range of dark and anguished expression. However, within its chosen bounds, the music is imaginatively varied. This is a composer with a fine ear, perhaps above all, and his use of such instruments as the organ, piano (with finger-stopped strings) and electric guitar reflects his sensitivity to pure sound.
During the five movements, which are played without pause, one can hear or imagine hearing many fond or sadly mocking allusions to the past – Ravel’s ”La Valse,” Mahler’s band tunes and Webern’s spare textures. Persistently, too, the piece recalls the atmosphere of spookiness and dread of such Schoenberg pieces as the Op. l6 pieces and the ”Accompaniment to a Cinema Scene.” A sad little tune at the end, seemingly for solo organ, one finger, reminds one of Shostakovich and that master’s own idol, Mahler. The workmanship is polished and intricate, but it never parades its learning in the usual avant-garde manner. All in all, a piece worth hearing again.
Worth hearing, too, was Nikita Magaloff’s performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 1. Designated as the composer’s Opus 1, this concerto is short of big, familiar tunes and is not heard with anything like the frequency of the Second and Third. It is, moreover, like most Rachmaninoff piano works in its unreal demands on the soloist. The 73-year-old Mr. Magaloff balked at nothing. Deceptively reticent in mien, he played with a patrician’s disdain for sheer flash, but there was technique aplenty in evidence. He gave an ardent, exquisitely detailed performance that had members of the audience smiling at one another in mid-phrase.
Mr. Magaloff, a renowned concert pianist, recording artist and teacher who returned to this country after a long absence last year, had not appeared with the Philharmonic since 1950. A shorter interval between his New York visits would seem only just, particularly in view of the scarcity of master pianists with his special qualities.
Mr. Mehta, who often seems to blossom when accompanying a talented soloist, went at the Rachmaninoff with great zest without, however, smothering the piano part at any time. Perhaps it is owing to his experience as an orchestral player in a previous life, but in any event he understands what it means to both support a soloist and, when necessary, take the lead.
The concert began with a large-scale reading of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, a work that is probably better known hereabouts as a Balanchine ballet than in its concert form. Mr. Mehta did not give the music a dancing lilt, but he did make the most of its sprung rhythms and symphonic richness. Anyone demanding the lean and jaunty sounds that we have come to expect in Stravinsky’s music of any period might have been disappointed. However, though Mr. Mehta’s was an odd approach to the work, in its way it was a persuasive one.