Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Viola Concerto

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on July 28, 2007

A programme note by Susan Bradshaw.

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 3 August 1989 (London premiere)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Matthias Bamert, conductor (replacing Valery Gergiev who was unwell)
Yuri Bashmet, viola

The programme cost 80p.

1. Largo
2. Allegro molto
3. Largo

Like the music of his three great twentieth-century compatriots – Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich – Schnittke’s mature works communicate with a directness totally devoid of stylistic posturing. Very much a composer of his time, he is nevertheless as closely indebted to Schoenberg’s developmental processes (where everything is related to everything else) as to the European fringes of his Russian inheritance. While he himself writes fast (though not without effort) and, particularly since a serious illness four years ago, as if with a sense of urgency, his instinctive awareness of the nature and implications of his own material is far from being haphazardly applied – even though the sheer quality and variety of his inspiration can often make it appear so.

The entire motivic material for this concerto derives from the musical letters in the name of tonight’s soloist (for whom the work was written), which, if spelt in the German manner, yields BASCH(m)E(t) – that is, B flat, A, E flat, C, B natural, E natural. The fact that these notes also include the B-A-C-H motif used by countless composers over the past two centuries is a happy coincidence – particularly for Schnittke, whose music abounds with references that may or may not be of a coincidental kind. Such expressive ambiguities arise at least in part from his extraordinary ability to perceive quasi-Schubertian relationships between consonance and dissonance, tonality and atonality – even between major and minor chords. In this way, the quite specific melodic shapes of the notes quoted above is soon revealed as freely and often movingly suggestive not only of other works, other eras, but of other contexts within the work itself.

The first movement begins as if in search of its own subject – as a kind of up-beat preparation (later revealed as having motivic connotations of its own) for the melodic statement of a theme arrived at only with the second entry of the orchestral strings some sixteen bars further on. Spelt out still more insistently by the brass and bells, as a sort of leitmotivic tolling that cuts through the haze of a close-packed chromatic tutti, it is again confirmed by the solo viola – this time slipping in a turn at the end of a trill by way of hinting at a figure that is to feature obsessively later in the work. This short introduction then ends as it began – with an incomplete version of the viola figure from the start of the movement now forming an “unfinished” cadence that again has a preparatory feel.

The anticipatory character of this inconclusive ending is immediately confirmed: the second movement opens with the explanatory viola statement from the start of the work, repeated in its original form on the wind, together with the ensuing B-A-S-C-H-E leitmotif, now heard in striding octaves on piano and lower strings. Propelled by the ostinato semiquavers of the soloist, the second of these two ideas is quickly revealed as having a passacaglia-like function; audibly present almost throughout (whether forwards, backwards, or inverted), its recurring shape and regular rhythmic pulse form a background against which to measure the expanding developments of the theme proper. Melodic transformations and intricate thematic cross-references quickly gather momentum through a series of waltz-like episodes to arrive at a more serene interlude where the trilled figure heard at the end of the first movement in turn features as an ostinato. As the soloist repeats this figure to outline a decorated version of the passacaglia motif in conjunction with bells, string harmonics and harp, its underlying tonal implications are finally unmasked by a gently rocking piano accompaniment. A foreshortened repeat of the opening leads to a viola cadenza and thence to a brief coda, ending with one last echo of the passacaglia motif hidden low in the bass.

This whole central scherzo could almost be described as a rondo, since the passacaglia motif acts much like a recurring refrain between episodes of more expanded development; but it is at the same time the core of the work as a whole – a hugely expanded and wide-ranging development of the material introduced in the first and concluded in the last of the two framing slow movements. Like the first, the last begins with the solo viola searching out the contours of a theme achieved in its original entirety along with the quasi-choral entry of four trombones. This evolves into a passionate recitative, retrieving and embellishing the thread of an argument begun in the first movement, before drawing to a close under the gradually receding influence of the second.

Searching the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on July 27, 2007

Searching the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke

Friday 12 – Sunday 14 January 2001
Barbican Centre, London

A review by Paul Pellay

For many years now, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has hosted an annual composer
weekend at the Barbican every January singling out a major 20th Century figure.
Composers as diverse as Hindemith, Ives, Berio, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, Martinu
and Weill, amongst others, have been the lucky recipients of such concentrated
exposure. For the first January of the new Millennium, the spotlight has fallen
on the recently deceased Alfred Schnittke. There have been Schnittke festivals
in the past, most notably in 1994 on the occasion of his 60th birthday, when
the Royal Academy of Music devoted their annual composer festival to the
Russian-born, German-domiciled composer. As admirable as that conspectus of
Schnittke’s oeuvre was, it certainly couldn’t cover his output as extensively
as this festival did.

Earlier in the week, the Guildhall had already set the ball rolling with
performances of several representative works, including the 7th Symphony (the
UK premiere, I believe) and the Viola Concerto, which has travelled the world
through the advocacy of Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian and Tabea Zimmermann,
amongst others. So, come Friday January 12th, the tone and atmosphere at the
Barbican was already set at the ideal level. Of the 10 concerts which made up
the weekend, I was able to attend 6 of them, 2 per day.

Boris Berman set the ball rolling early on Friday evening, with a recital
consisting of the first 2 piano sonatas, commandingly performed. The First
Sonata, written for Vladimir Feltsman, was by far the weightier one, and was
almost orchestral in its texture and complexity. The much shorter Second Sonata
was also sparer, more graceful even (though grace isn’t an adjective one would
immediately associate with Schnittke), and Berman had no trouble in
differentiating his approach to each work. He has in fact recorded pretty much
all of Schnittke’s piano music for Chandos, so his credentials are
unimpeachable.

The real meat of the evening followed shortly afterwards, with the BBCSO and
Martyn Brabbins taking the stage for the main evening concert. In the first
half, they shared the limelight with another old hand at Schnittke, the
redoubtable Gidon Kremer, for a performance of the 4th Violin Concerto (1984).
It wasn’t until I heard the work in the flesh that I realised how subdued and
restrained most of it is: it was significant that at the work’s loudest
climaxes the soloist fell silent, either by stopping altogether (as in the
climax of the slow 3rd movement), or, more strikingly, by miming furiously
along while the orchestra went haywire (as it does in the climax of the moto
perpetuo-like second movement, or near the end of the concluding fourth
movement). Only when the orchestra finally fades in exhaustion do we realise
that the soloist isn’t playing at all. A typically odd, disturbing work,
brilliantly realised by Kremer (the concerto’s dedicatee), though perhaps
Brabbins kept the lid upon the orchestral proceedings a little more insistently than was
strictly necessary. But such notions were firmly dispelled in the second half,
which was taken over by the absolutely uncategorisable First Symphony
(1969-72).

The work begins with an empty stage, gradually filled with the players walking
on while playing, and finally brought to order by the conductor, who comes on
last of all. The first movement proper is quite deliberately incoherent in
comparison, with quotations from other composers, wild disruptions and
non-sequiturs, and it has to be said that much of the symphony (which lasts
over an hour), is in the same spirit.

The second movement, a Scherzo, is stopped in its tracks by a fast-and-furious
jazz cadenza for violin and piano (Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan were the
marvellous soloists here, provoking much startled laughter from the audience by
having snatches of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto rub shoulders with
Autumn Leaves !); at the end, all the wind players troop offstage, leaving just
the strings and percussion for the slow third movement. A relatively subdued
affair, it builds arch-like to a massive, climactic chord of C minor before
retreating once more.

As it ends, the brass and woodwinds troop back on, playing all the while (with
fragments of Chopin’s Funeral March thrown in for good measure), and the fourth
and last movement gets underway. It’s as wild and as crazed a collage as the
first movement, and at the end, everyone leaves the stage, the leader bringing
up the rear while playing the last few bars of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Just
as we are led to believe that this is the end, the whole deranged circus starts
all over again, with the players marching onstage once more, playing as they
come on. Again, the conductor comes on last of all, but this time he cues the
whole orchestra on a deafening unison C, and the work is over.

As one American commentator once put it, the symphony commits suicide and
leaves a note! As a theatrical experience, there is nothing quite like it in
the orchestral repertoire, and it was brilliantly realised by the BBC SO which,
it’s worth remembering, gave the work’s Western premiere in 1986 under Gennady
Rozhdestvensky, for whom the symphony was written. Brabbins presided over this
whole orchestral “theatre of the absurd” with commendable sang-froid. But as
far as purely musical value is concerned, one just cannot find the right words
to assess this symphony (or “anti-symphony”). And maybe that was Schnittke’s
aim: to create a work that defied categorisation of any kind. A musical
happening, as it were. As such, it was a resounding success, and the audience
responded with an ovation. It boded well for the rest of the Festival.

Saturday opened with the first of two concerts by the London Sinfonietta (the
second one, on Sunday afternoon, I was forced to miss). Martyn Brabbins was
once again on the podium, and began the proceedings with what might still be
Schnittke’s best-known work, the Concerto Grosso no.1 (1977), with Clio Gould
and Joan Atherton the two solo violinists and John Constable at the prepared
piano (whose opening solo cast its customarily creepy spell). Of all
Schnittke’s works, it is this one where his “polystylism” is allowed the
fullest rein, with its odd, curdled neo-Baroqueries rubbing shoulders with a
sleazy tango and one of Schnittke’s most flesh-crawling climaxes (the slowly
fermenting build-up in the Recitativo third movement which is finally cut off
in mid-scream).

It was followed by the world premiere of an unfinished work that Schnittke had
earmarked for the London Sinfonietta. It was intended to be a cantata for
countertenor and orchestra, but was left unfinished when Schnittke’s
penultimate stroke in 1994 all but dammed the creative floodtide which until
then had swept away every obstacle against all odds.

Following a brief spoken introduction by Gerard McBurney (who during the
weekend acted as the witty, articulate tour guide through Schnittke’s world),
we heard the two movements and the fragment of a third which was all Schnittke
left of this work, which was given the faute-de-mieux title of “Fragment” as
the composer himself never even gave it one of his own. It was oddly bare and
hermetic stuff, typical of the work of Schnittke’s last, pain-ridden years. The
first movement was for strings and harpsichord only, and did engage in some
fairly intense musical argument before working up to a climax of some power.
The second movement was a typically bald incantation for the countertenor, with
percussion adding some much-needed colour to offset the other music’s
intransigent greyness. The unfinished third movement was mainly for woodwinds
and horns alone, a nervous, circumspect scherzo which was finally halted by a
lone celesta cluster.

Following the interval, Brabbins guided his forces through the Symphony No.4
(1984). It requires the smallest forces of any Schnittke symphony, but it is
also the most monolithic in conception, being a single movement of some 40
minutes’ length, mostly going at the same slow-ish tempo throughout.

Of all the Schnittke symphonies it is the slowest to reveal its secrets, and
Brabbins did not altogether succeed in that respect: the reticence which had
been noticeable in the performance of the 4th Violin Concerto the previous
evening was even more evident here. On the other hand, it did accentuate the
powerfully ritualistic aspect of this symphony.

Concerto Grosso No. 1

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on July 2, 2007

Notes by Edgar Colon-Hernandez.

Schnittke completed his Concerto Grosso No. 1 in 1977. The work received its premiere performance that same year on 21 March, with the Leningrad Chamber Orchestra under Eri Klas; the soloists for the occasion were violinists Gidon Kremer and Tatiana Gridenko, and Yuri Smirnov on the two keyboard instruments. The style of this composition seems to be one of pastiche. The composer has described the work as “a play of three spheres, the Baroque, the Modern and the banal” (the German word meaning the overly popular, with a tinge of the trite). These seemingly disparate elements and styles encompassing over two centuries are fused into one cohesive structure of marvelously unified vision; this is all achieved with “extraordinary virtuosity, wit and flair” (New York Times). This unity is achieved mostly by the recurrence of thematic motifs, and especially by the melodic and harmonic use of minor and major seconds, along with those intervals’ inversions and their expansion by octaves to create minor and major ninths.

The preludio, marked Andante, begins as the piano – prepared in its upper register by the insertion of pieces of wood between the strings – presents a curious theme that might remind one of a very old jack-in-the-box whose crank will only turn slowly; heard against a tolling C in the piano’s lower – and “unprepared” – register, this material will be heard once again towards the end of the composition. The main theme, and indeed the main germinating cell of the entire work, is then introduced by two solo violins, calling to each other with intervals of minor seconds, and usually staying close to each other by the same intervallic distance. Finally, low strings enter playing long held harmonics, providing minimal support for the soloists. The proceedings approach a tense climax, as the harpsichord recalls the initial theme played by the prepared piano, with the soloists becoming increasingly agitated over long held chords of violas, cellos, and basses. At the height of tension, the full orchestral strings take over momentarily; as the tension decreases, the two soloists recall their “calling” theme, this time with the first violin playing minor ninths against the second violin’s major sevenths.

The Toccata, marked Allegro, follows without pause. The soloists plunge into a diatonic Baroque theme, played in strict canon. Soon the orchestral violins, divided into 12 parts, join the canon. When this soon reaches a state of frenzy, the lower strings interrupt to introduce a new section wherein the soloists alternate with the orchestra in short frenetic gestures. The basses, which until this point in this movement have been silent, interrupt with a measure of punctuated sevenths, whereupon the soloists introduce a new Vivaldian theme of repeated notes over a steady pedal-point harpsichord accompaniment, soon supported by canonic orchestral gestures. An atonal theme which retains the previous Baroque mood leads into an extended section in which the carefree soloists keep being interrupted by short, furious interjections from the orchestra until the end of the movement.

After only a minuscule rest for a breath, the orchestra begins the third movement, a funeral Recitativo marked Lento. The intervals of minor and major seconds dominate the discourse, recalling the prelude. Everything is tightly controlled until the soloists begin to produce larger intervals and wild glissandi runs; an uncontrollable climax is reached, and with feverish pitch the 21-part orchestra slowly creeps to their highest register until reaching a piercing shriek.

After a short pause, the two soloists embark on a passionate Cadenza. Beginning with furious minor seconds, the two soon work up to a point of frenzy. The sudden appearance of a Purcellian motif leads directly into the next movement.

The Rondo, bearing an Agitato marking, begins with an arpeggiated figure in the harpsichord, over which the soloists introduce the main theme, a declamatory one of Vivaldian character, exchanged between the two in quasi-canonic fashion; the orchestra adds agitated accompaniment figures to create the first, extended episode of the Rondo. In the second episode, the harpsichord establishes a new theme in the form of a tango, against which the soloists play the main theme, imparting it with a more romantic flavor. A curious episode ensues next, where as if in slow motion, the orchestra clumsily takes over the tango and the soloists correct them by playing it pizzicato, with the aid of the harpsichord. The orchestra, however, will not be quieted, and snatches the tango theme back, playing it with Mahlerian ardor. The next episode begins with repeated Stravinskian fortissimo chords over which the soloists struggle in vain to establish the theme again. Soon chaos erupts until the proceedings culminate with a short passage of pathos recalling the music of Richard Strauss. The soloists’ final trill in the Straussian melody brings on a change of tempo to Andante, as the piano plays the broken toy motif heard at the beginning of the work, played now over a dense 21-part chord of minor seconds, which keeps modulating slowly upward. This is all punctuated by the insistent death knell low C of the piano.

Without any pause, the postludio is reached, completing a full cycle as the soloists play their minor seconds “calling” theme from the first movement, here performed in high harmonics over a sustained chord in the highest register of all the orchestral strings except for the basses; the death knell is still being heard, along with sporadic chords from the prepared octave of the piano, giving the impression of a machine that is finally breaking down. The orchestral first violins try to infuse life into the proceedings once again by recalling the canonic Baroque theme momentarily, but the death knell reasserts itself. The long sustained chord keeps decreasing in volume until the last breath is spent and the Concerto dies away.

If a person was not aware of the fact that Mr. Schnittke often views the old forms with fond humor, s/he might think that the composer’s implication is that the form and style of the Baroque Concerto Grosso is dead – and therefore an obsolete – one. This, however, is not really the case, as Schnittke has gone on to compose at least two other Concerti Grossi after this one.

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