Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Life With an Idiot

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 20, 2007

Review by John Rockwell published 15 April 1992 in The New York Times

What may have been the most important event in Russian operatic history since the first staged performance of Prokofiev’s “Story of a Real Man” in Moscow in 1960 took place Monday night. In Amsterdam.

The occasion was the world premiere of “Life With an Idiot”, the first opera by Alfred Schnittke, who now lives in Hamburg, Germany, but who counts as Russia’s most respected, best-known living composer. The performance at the Netherlands Music Theater of this surrealist, often grotesque and sexually explicit score took place in the presence of Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus and was greeted with a fervent standing ovation.

Narrated by a character known simply as “I”, the libretto tells of a man guilty of some unidentified crime who is ordered by the party to bring an idiot into his home as punishment. But his idiot, Vova, soon starts disrupting his happy home. Eventually Vova seduces I’s wife and then I himself. Vova kills the wife, and I winds up in the asylum, an idiot himself.

The three Americans who took the principal roles – the baritone Dale Duesing as I, the soprano Teresa Ringholz as My Wife and the tenor Howard Haskin as Vova, the Idiot – won cheers, Mr. Duesing especially. But the greatest applause was for Mstislav Rostropovich, who conducted, and for Mr. Schnittke. The sight of Mr. Rostropovich, who is the most fervent hugger and kisser since Leonard Bernstein, tugging the shy and back-pedaling Mr. Schnittke into the limelight created one of the sweeter curtain calls in recent operatic annals.

It was not Mr. Schnittke and Mr. Rostropovich alone who made this such a significant occasion. The librettist was Viktor Yerofeyev, who based his work on his short story of the same name; Mr. Yerofeyev, who lives in Moscow, has had his first novel, “Russian Beauty”, published in 25 countries. The stage director was the 82-year-old Boris Pokrovsky, who has been associated with the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow since 1943 and was its chief stage director for 26 of those years. The decor was by Ilya Kabakov, a well-known avant-garde Russian artist.

All these talents came together because Pierre Audi, the innovative artistic director of the Netherlands Opera, “pounced” on the chance to commission the opera when he heard from the composer that he felt inspired by Mr. Yerofeyev’s story. Mr. Audi then brought Mr. Rostropovich on board and acceded to his wishes for the rest of the team. Mr. Rostropovich said he had been trying to collaborate with Mr. Pokrovsky for 18 years.

The premiere took place in Amsterdam, where it will play through April 30, for another reason as well. Russia long shunned Mr. Schnittke’s musical progressiveness and now, when it might wish to honor him, cannot afford to do so. There is even some thought, however, that Mr. Yerofeyev’s scabrous tale and Mr. Schnittke’s biting musical satire might still be too much for Russian conservatism. “I think this opera would shock people in Russia,” Mr. Yerofeyev said at the post-premiere reception. “When I wanted to do it at the Bolshoi, they told me they were too bolshoi for it.” In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand.

Mr. Yerofeyev has translated his story ingeniously to the stage, but the very act of expanding a highly literary tale into the broad gestures of opera has underscored the allegorical implications. The libretto does contain key phrases like I’s desire for “a blessed, holy-fool-type abnormality, national in form and content”. At the end – this is the last line of the story – he talks of “the swan song of my revolution”. Mr. Schnittke, for his part, satirizes everything in sight, including the “Internationale” in a version so dissonant that Mr. Rostropovich said it “smelled like Roquefort”. Soviet-style red is the dominant color of the production, the program book and the poster. Vova is even made up to look like Lenin.

Such hints point the viewer toward an interpretation of the opera as a critique of Communism, the ordinary Russian seduced and destroyed by mindless, systematic monomania. Marcel Proust wanders helplessly through the piece, and Mr. Yerofeyev said “he represents culture in this century, but Vova is stronger”. The Dutch press has labeled the opera “a requiem for the Soviet Union”.

In an interview, Mr. Rostropovich conceded with a wink that “of course” Vova was meant to look like Lenin, adding that “I always see the history of my country in this opera”. But all the participants also wished the opera to be perceived in more universal terms than mere political satire. “Vova is also Hitler or Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Rostropovich argued. “Any dictator with an idee fixe.”

Mordant skepticism has long been a part of Mr. Schnittke’s musical personality, and such tendencies dominate this opera. The often dissonant music ranges from the eerily atmospheric, to raucous ensembles, to singers and choral ensembles and instrumentalists spread about the theater, to a tango with Mr. Rostropovich at the piano, to a short but moving cello solo for the conductor, who also happens to be the world’s best-known cellist.

The Role of Humor

Mr. Rostropovich and Mr. Audi even suggested that there was something inherently Russian in finding serious art funny — such as the eerie a trio that ends the opera, the Wife singing addled bird song, Vova howling “Ech” (the only word he ever sings) and I meandering on, as mad as Tom Rakewell at the end of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress”. Mr. Rostropovich said that while that passage moved him to tears, Mr. Schnittke found it hilarious.

Mr. Schnittke, however, insisted that his music encompassed serious, unambiguously emotional sentiments, too. An admiring Russian composer in a recent BBC documentary film said that what made any Schnittke premiere exciting was that one never knew what kind of music one might hear. Although his “poly stylistic” approach constantly threatens to lose focus, Mr. Rostropovich insisted that the composer had “so strong a personality” that coherence was maintained.

Although Mr. Schnittke has had two physically debilitating strokes, one four years ago and one last June, his mind is sharp and he is pressing forward with two new operatic projects. Both are for the West, one on the Faust theme for Frankfurt and another on the life of the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo for Vienna. Neither, he said, would tap his skeptical vein in any way.

All this work, he added contentedly, will be composed in Hamburg, not Moscow. He was surrounded by Russian well-wishers at the premiere, but he has no intention of returning to Russia any time soon.

Born in 1934 to a father born in Germany and a German-Jewish mother, he said that “I have long suffered in Russia because I have not one drop of Russian blood”. Mr. Rostropovich suggested that Mr. Schnittke’s case was “like a dog: if you always beat a dog, he is not coming back to the place where he was beaten. In Moscow all of Schnittke’s life, they beat him.”


Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 17, 2007

Article by Andrew Marr

It may be that Alfred Schnittke has portrayed the downfall of Western Civilization. Perhaps he has also portrayed the rebirth of a new civilization. With many of his works, I get the impression that Schnittke has picked up the scraps of a disintegrated tonal system and an equally disintegrated twelve-tone system and built a collage out of these scraps. The most common word in critical comment on Schnittke is “eclectic”. That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Not every work of Schnittke’s is a patchwork quilt, but many of them are.

Alfred Schnittke has written some of the saddest music I have ever heard. The pathos seems to be due, not only to personal tragedies but also to the tragedy of his country, Russia, and to Western Civilization as a whole. It is hard to imagine as sensitive a person writing cheerful music during the Brezhnev years in Russia. The plight of Western Civilization does not seem to cause every composer to shroud his or her music in black, but something is passing away and it is fitting that someone should mourn that passing. However, since civilizations are finite and should not be objects of worship, the passing of an era need not be grounds for despair. Whether or not Schnittke’s music expresses faith in the midst of this passing is an open question. It may have been an open question to Schnittke himself. More often than not, I hear faith, or at least faith in the midst of doubt, in much of Schnittke’s music.

An element of the eclectic style in Schnittke is the use of scraps from earlier styles. Schnittke’s use of earlier styles is radically different from the neoclassicism of Stravinsky and some of his contemporaries early in the century. Schnittke does not give Baroque and Classical styles a new coat, he reveals their threadbare state. For example, in the Concerto Grosso No. 1, there is an allegro that starts out like any spritely Vivaldi allegro but then it suddenly disintegrates into incredibly dense tone clusters, aided by the microtonal capabilities of the strings. In contrast to this work, the Concerto Grosso No. 2 is much more a positive reworking of classical styles in Postmodern dress, including a few outbursts of electric guitar. As if to stress the fragmented state of our civilization, Schnittke took a fragment of Gustav Mahler’s, his unfinished piano quartet, and wrote a completion of the scherzo of which Mahler had written only about thirty bars. The result is a two-movement work dovetailing the late Romantic and Postmodern styles.

The First Symphony is perhaps the most extreme work of the scrapheap style. There are several stunts to the work, with the orchestra coming on stage after the works starts and leaving before it ends. For over an hour, the symphony tries to find a beginning that will keep it going, and when that doesn’t happen, it spends that last half trying to find a viable conclusion. That doesn’t happen either. In the course of all this, just about everything, including a jazz violin cadenza if not the kitchen sink, can be heard. For a stunt piece, it is ingenious, but it is not where I hear Schnittke’s greatness as a composer.

One of the first works of Schnittke’s that I became familiar with, and which convinced me that he was among the most compelling voices in the late twentieth century, is the concerto for piano and string orchestra. This one-movement work is constructed on a dialectic between tonal and atonal elements, triadic and tone-cluster harmony. There are two main themes, one of them based on a twelve-tone row (but not strictly using serial techniques) and the other an Orthodox liturgical chant. These disparate elements fuse in the course of the work so that there is a sense of a new musical unity of styles. Other episodes along the way, including a “nightmare blues section” as Schnittke called it, also blend into the overall musical statement. As is often the case with Schnittke, this concerto is charged with strong emotion. There are dissonances which are enough to make a bald man’s hair stand on end. There are also passages of heart-breaking beauty. The music does not suggest that questions about life have been answered, but it affirms the possibility of making a musical statement out of elements that in earlier music had not spoken with each other.

The Third Symphony is one of Schnittke’s most powerful musical statements. The first movement is quite remarkable. It is marked as having no tempo. The movement is a swirl that swells and dies down again, but otherwise, nothing happens. A triadic theme weaves in and out of more nebulous material, creating a tapestry of sound that seems always to have existed and always will, even when the movement dies down. In contrast to this close union of musical materials, the second and third movements show advanced states of de-composition. The triadic theme from the first movement is cast in a Mozartian style, which soon is developed in a Romantic style and then the musical fabric falls apart. As if that were not enough, the third movement is a demonic scherzo that is frankly rather frightening. However, although it gives the feeling that all music and everything else is falling apart, I recently noticed that it was following the same tight Passacaglia design as the last sublime last movement and with the same theme. The sound of chaos, then, is still ordered and, after the horror has reached its climax, it is answered by the continuing development of the theme in a long slow meditation that conveys to me the sense of waiting in hope. The passacaglia opens up to a coda that concludes with a statement of the triadic theme of the first two movements played by a flute over a sustained bass. The movement of the symphony goes from a primordial sort of unity, through a progressive shredding of unity, and on to a long waiting period in hope for a new vision of contemplative unity.

By and large, in his late works, Schnittke tended to eschew mosaic eclecticism for a seamless tissue of interrelated themes. In the piano trio, for example (also incarnated as a string trio), there are two movements, both at moderate tempos, that develop the same thematic material, all closely related, in an extended funeral march. In the Eighth Symphony, which is among the greatest of Schnittke’s last works, there is a strong tendency to monothematic movements, much like the Eastern minimalists. The first and third movements are relentless in their repetition of their oppressive themes that suggest that humanity is caught in a vice-like grip of unfreedom. The long Adagio, however, soars with a subtle sense of cosmic freedom, as if the heavens are well within reach of the human heart. Although the third movement tries to dispel that sense of freedom, there is a short final movement that reasserts the gentle transcendent reach of the Adagio.

Perhaps the most comprehensive work, the magnum opus of Schnittke’s career, is the ballet score for Peer Gynt. Ibsen’s play, itself, is broad in its scope so that there is much to depict in supporting the plot, from the rustic dances of the early scenes to Peer Gynt’s career updated to that of a popular entertainer, to his insanity and to his cosmic journey after death. Not surprisingly, much of Schnittke’s earlier eclecticism enters in. The prelude to Act II is a brief tribute to Edvard Grieg. The following dance movements include ragtime played on an out-of-tune piano. The epilogue, however, where Peer Gynt continues to try to find his elusive self is another of Schnittke’s seamless structures where all the themes in this ballet float in and out, somehow reconciled in the mystery of Eternity and in the human questioning that still persists as we seek to live under the judgment of Eternity.

I admit that I have singled out works that are more positive than others. The third cello sonata, for example, his last completed work before he died, is very bitter. The Concerto Grosso No. 5 follows on a Four Seasons structure, ending with winter. It is an open question as to whether or not spring will come or if winter is all that there will be. On the other hand, both cello concertos end with intense expressions of overwhelming, even defiant, hope. This suggests to me that Alfred Schnittke spent his musical life waiting in hope, and that the hope with which he waited was stronger at some times than at others. That is true of many of us. It is not easy to see deeply into the fragmented state of our culture at the end of this Millennium. Schnittke did see deeply into it and he did not find that perception easy to live with. But he lived with it and he asked questions about the meaning of life. Although raised in the Soviet State with no religion (although his mother was Jewish) he was baptized at St. Florian’s Church, the Church that Anton Bruckner served. How easily he assimilated Anton Bruckner’s faith is another question. That Schnittke faced life honestly and with a deep heart is beyond dispute.

Viola Concerto

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 17, 2007

Programme Note by Gerard McBurney

One of the great advantages of being a composer in the Soviet Union – and there were many disadvantages – was that as long as you had something serious to say with your art, instead of being isolated as so many Western artists are, you were part of what Russians call the “intelligentsia”, the community of friends and kindred spirits who were as interested in your work as you were in theirs. One of the effects of this was that Soviet composers often had extremely close working links with some of the finest performers of their day. Prokofiev and Shostakovich famously worked with Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich, while for the next generation of composers there was not only Rostropovich (who is still working with composers today), but a roster of such startlingly brilliant younger players as the violinists Gidon Kremer and Oleg Kagan, the violist Yuri Bashmet and the cellist Natalya Gutman.

Alfred Schnittke composed for all these great musicians and for many other wonderful performers too. His numerous concertos, in particular, are a panoramic record of a lifetime of such musical friendships and working relationships. For example, his Third Violin Concerto (1978) was written for Kagan, while the Fourth (1984) was for Kremer. His two cello concertos were for Gutman (1986) and Rostropovich (1990). Altogether, over a period of more than thirty years, Schnittke wrote around twenty such concertos, most of them for close friends who played stringed instruments.
One of the grandest and finest of these is his Viola Concerto, composed in the summer of 1985 for Yuri Bashmet. Especially in later years, it was Schnittke’s habit when writing music for his friends to encode their name in musical letters into the score. This Viola Concerto is no exception. Very near the beginning of the work we hear the viola soloist spelling out the letters of Bashmet’s name as a melody. That is, in a mixture of German and French notation: B – A – Es – C – H – Mi or, in more familiar Anglo-Saxon notation: B flat – A – E flat – C – B natural – E natural. From this tiny six note phrase, Schnittke builds almost the entire structure of this concerto, nearly forty minutes of music.

Schnittke’s Viola Concerto has three movements, each longer than the last. The slow first movement, which lasts just over five minutes, has the character of an introduction, launching the main images and melodies of the whole piece. After an agonized opening declamation for the viola, in which the orchestra functions like an echo chamber sustaining every note the violist plays, we hear the eerie “Bashmet” melody harmonized by the orchestral strings with simple old-fashioned chords almost like church music. This is followed by a second and longer version of the declamation which culminates in a terrifying chord from the full orchestra (also made of the same six notes from Bashmet’s name). Then a third idea appears, something like a delicate baroque cadence from a piece of eighteenth-century music by a composer like Bach.

The second movement – Allegro molto – begins with frantic arpeggiation from the soloist, like silent-movie music, almost as though the soloist were being hunted down by the orchestra. In the course of this very varied movement, Schnittke weaves in not only the three ideas from the first movement but a whole series of sometimes upsetting references to other quite different kinds of music: film-music, cheap dance-music, brass-band music, Soviet military marches and so on. Schnittke loved to do this kind of thing. He felt passionately that the musical rubbish of our lives needed to be drawn into serious works of art, that connections needed to be made between what he called the “high” and the “low”.

The final movement, at a little over a quarter of an hour, is almost as long as the previous two movements put together. It is a spacious and desolate lament, in the course of which music from both the previous two movements reappears, but ruined and destroyed. Through a dreadfully bleak musical landscape, the viola soloist wanders as though searching for some echo or answer from the orchestra. At the very end, the music once again settles on the six notes from Bashmet’s name, drawing from them the only traditional chord they contain – a simple triad of A minor – which the strings of the orchestra sustain and sustain, while around the chord the soloist gasps and whispers on a series of low dissonant pulsing notes, like the beating of a heart.

Shortly after he finished this concerto, Schnittke was staying in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda when, on 21 July, 1985, he had a severe stroke. Although he recovered partially, for the rest of his life his health was severely damaged. He later wrote movingly about the associations between this critical moment and the Viola Concerto:

“In a certain respect the piece has the character of a – temporary – farewell. For ten days after finishing work on it, I was placed in a situation from which there was hardly any way out. I could only slowly enter a second phase of life, a phase through which I am still passing. Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).”

Second Violin Sonata

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 17, 2007

Dmitri Smirnov has written some interesting analytical marginalia on this piece, as discussed in Alfred Schnittke: His life and creative work (Kholopova V., Chigariova E., Moscow, Sovetsky Kompozitor, 1990).

CD Review: Film Music (Volume I)

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 14, 2007

Review by Michael McLennan

The Commissar – suite (1967) [47:31]
Story of an Unknown Actor – suite (1976) [18:38]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Frank Strobel
rec. Deutschlandradios Berlin, 5-7 Dec 2002, 26-28 May 2003

CAPRICCIO hybrid CD/SACD–CC71041 [66:09.]

Whatever evil can be justly spoken of the former Soviet Union, it cannot be said that it successfully suppressed the composition of stirring film music and may even have encouraged it. This is perhaps a strange reflection on which to open a review, but surely appropriate to some degree. The last eighteen months have seen releases of the complete scores of Shostakovich’s Hamlet (Naxos 8.557446), Prokofiev’s path-breaking Alexander Nevsky (RCA Victor Red Seal 60867), along with the Chandos Shostakovich film music series (CHAN 10183 and CHAN 10023). Joining this already impressive cache of Cold War treasures is Capriccio’s new presentation of selections from two scores by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) under the able baton of Frank Strobel conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Though he was throughout the 1960s and 1970s one of the most prolific voices in Soviet film music composition, this is my first exposure to Schnittke’s work and what an introduction! These two scores nicely balance an incredibly poignant romantic voice in composition with a flair for experimental manipulation of orchestral acoustics.

Story of an Unknown Actor is occasion for the former. The 1976 film, directed by Aleksandr Zarkhy, told the story of a young playwright who wrote a script specifically for a relatively unknown actor in his twilight years. The role to be played was a homage to the actor’s life, incorporating many personal experiences and the range of his performances throughout his career. Sadly, the role is ultimately given to a younger less experienced actor before the play is performed, and the unknown actor retires in anonymity.

I’ve not seen this film, but after hearing Schnittke’s music, I don’t think I need to, so clear is the narrative of this six part suite arranged by Frank Strobel. ‘Thema – Tittelmusik’ opens with the main theme descending in the strings with piano accompaniment. The theme, instantly recognisable as a romantic Russian work but more intimate, is passed to the oboe and finally to the piano. It speaks of a man’s twilight years. Out of this melancholy arises a secondary theme in the flute representing the late-in-life performance opportunity presented to the unknown actor. The strings joyously take this up. But the opportunity is fleeting and ultimately unfruitful. Continuous reprisal of a piano ostinato throughout leads to a reprise of the main theme in piano, followed by the strings and oboe.

This wonderfully descriptive thematic scoring continues throughout the suite. A strident string melody (an adaptation of the main theme) opens ‘Agitato I – Schlitten’, a warlike but classical piece in 7/8 time that passes through strings, trumpet and piano. An ostinato in the strings, later carried by percussion and harpsichord counterpoints the main theme throughout. The same motif is given a more sombre interpretation in ‘Agitato II – Reise’, with flute and oboe readings. Playful pizzicato, harpsichord and flute adaptations add a distinctly baroque feel to the second half of this track, before a full orchestral climax in 4/4 with piano accompaniment. Marimba, celesta and woodwinds delicately close the piece.

A classic waltz opens the fourth part of the suite, ‘Walser (Abschied)’. The main theme appears in snatches throughout, opening in delicate percussion with pizzicato before flute and strings take up the waltz with light horn accompaniment. The main theme takes centre-stage in the strings again in ‘Thema und Marsch’, the different sections counterpointing each other as the theme falls away to nothing. This subdued track unexpectedly closes with a march in the brass and percussion – Schnittke’s flute writing is again commendable here. ‘Epilog – Finale’ closes the disc with a reprise of the main theme. No longer does the flute come in with a reprieve, the piano disappearing to nothing. When one thinks its over, the final statement counterpoints the main theme with the optimism of the first track in the strings.

Overall, this score as represented and recorded on this Capriccio release is magnificent. Schnittke’s adeptness at passing melodies and their variations around his augmented orchestra is magnificent. The mixing serves the piece as well. Even in the most epic moments, we never lose track of the intimacy of the solo parts.

The other score represented here, for the 1967 banned Alexander Askoldov film The Commissar, is less in the classical romantic tradition. It was a strange film by all accounts – the titular commissar actually a take-no-prisoner Bolshevik commander who falls pregnant after an amorous encounter with a fellow officer. Despite not wanting the baby, she is forced to live-in with a Jewish family for the course of her pregnancy, setting the stage for a study of anti-Semitism in Bolshevik Russia.

The music seems to match this fascinating film concept perfectly. For the violence of the time, the arbitrary but deliberate orchestral meanderings of ‘Attacke’ bring to mind the contemporary work of Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone – the acoustic experimentation of ‘The Searchers’ from Planet of the Apes or ‘The Transgression’ from Once Upon a Time in the West. Icy piano rumblings stab into percussion solos. Brass fanfares enter at strange intervals, the piece closing with a striking woodwind solo. ‘Liebe’ and ‘Einzug in die Stadt’ are also written in this style, the latter closing with a Shostakovich-like march fanfare. The percussion solos in ‘Traum’, as the Holocaust draws nigh for the characters, are violent and raw.

The Commissar herself is given a surprisingly gentle theme. The Russian folk melody passes between strings, brass, oboe, clarinet and organ in ‘Spaziergange d. Wawilowa durch die Stadt’, each commenting on an aspect of Russian culture. The brass is the military, the organ is the religiosity of the Bolshevik cause, the clarinet, oboe and strings the softening effect of .her child on her attitude towards the Jewish family. This theme develops throughout the score to a choral, organ and brass apotheosis in ‘Einsicht’ as the transformed Commissar returns to the battlefront.

The Jewish family is represented through Schnittke’s deft handling of klezmer styles. Their use to represent the Jewish family is clichéd, but Schnittke’s more experimental devices always undercut this simplicity, commenting on the danger of stereotypes. The opening piece closes with a slow clarinet and flute theme in this style. The scrape of the violins in ‘Hochzeit’ suggests a rustic country dance, ominous brass motifs foreshadowing the dark fate of the Jewish father who dances in the morning. ‘Spiel’ runs the full gamut of intensity – going from a agitated clarinet dance to klezmer march of death with percussion and brass racing to catch up with each other. I assume this is an intended effect, and not a blemish on an otherwise commendable performance by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. In ‘Wanderung der Verdammten’, the death warrant of being Jewish is incredibly depicted by Schnittke as a grinding machine with fragments of klezmer flitting in and out of the piece.

There is much more in The Commissar that could be commented on. Schnittke’s impressive flute writing comes to the fore again in the latter half of the penultimate track and in ‘Regen’. It’s an incredible score rich in stylistic diversity. While not as immediately accessible as Story of an Unknown Actor, the coupling here makes this disc an essential purchase for appreciators of Russian film music. The only thing that could be asked of this new release is more attention to the relationship between Schnittke’s music and the narrative of the films in the liner notes. But that is a minor quibble when the music is this good.


Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 14, 2007

A list of Schnittke’s works (in German).

CD Review: Film Music (Volume II)

Posted in Uncategorized by R.A.D. Stainforth on September 12, 2007

Review by David Blomenberg

Clowns und Kinder (1976) [8:44]
Der Walzer (1969) [11:20]
Die Glasharmonika (1968) [20:50]
Der Aufstieg (1976) [14:16]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Frank Strobel
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche May 2002, February 2004

CAPRICCIO 71061 [55:30]

For those who find Schnittke forbidding and stark, here we have him, at the outset, at his most accessible. As soon as the introduction for Clowns und Kinder is under way, we find a very outgoing Schnittke, clearly revealing the influence of Shostakovich. One could say he is leaning a bit heavily — the opening bars immediately call to mind Shostakovich’s own film music and Jazz suites, right down to the instrumentation of the title music and following waltz-intermezzo. Schnittke knows when he has a good thing, and the theme for the waltz haunts most of the subsequent music for this film. It shows up first in the upper strings and ends with the piano replicating the wonderfully off-kilter tumbling figure before it stops abruptly. One doesn’t normally think of Schnittke as hummable, but hummable — even catchy — this is.

The disc moves to a slightly cooler tone with the next film, Der Walzer. The waltz theme insistently bobs through all of the pieces here. Schnittke can’t resist the urge to quote Strauß, who is dragged before the footlights with a swelling in volume before he is unceremoniously dumped off the lip of the stage right onto the chimes. Schnittke returns to his own waltz theme before all crashes into a dissonant, tense episode. In spite of all the waltz swims to the surface of such dark water and all returns to sunny sociability.

An exciting aspect of this recording is the programming which is not chronological, but begins with Schnittke at his most accessible, progressing on to more austere and, well, Schnittke-like soundworlds. The Glasharmonika shows aspects of the concerti grossi, beginning with frosty, brittle music that slides into a quaintly comforting section that recalls earlier music styles. It combines the use of a Theremin and early Russian electronics to replicate an unearthly mezzo-soprano part. This is a challenging score, both in the listening as well as in the performing, and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin do admirably.

Perhaps most forbidding of all is the final score Der Aufstieg, the first track of which is a seven-minute-long crescendo with outbursts from the brass, mounting after a very long build-up to a crashing climax. This is followed by the “On the Sled” section, an oppressive, obsessive piece reeling in cold and self-doubt. The regret of horrible deeds haunts both the movie and the music, ending strangely unresolved, not with a bang but a whimper.

The sound quality of this SACD, played for this review on a conventional player, is exceptional, and the argument is emphatically stated in playback that Schnittke’s film music is an artistically significant area of his oeuvre that needs to be explored further. An exciting release.

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