Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

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.


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