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.

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