Concerto Grosso No. 1
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.