Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

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

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

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.


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