Alfred Schnittke: Signs of Life
Lloyd Schwartz, The Boston Phoenix, 20 August 1998
Alfred Schnittke, who died August 3 in Hamburg at the age of 64 after years of poor health, was the most celebrated Russian composer of our time. I first heard about him as the composer of a notorious atonal cadenza for the Beethoven Violin Concerto that he wrote for the Russian virtuoso Gidon Kremer. Then Peter Sellars, who is often the first kid on the musical block, incorporated Schnittke’s powerful First String Quartet into the action of his production of The Count of Monte Cristo, at the Kennedy Center in 1985, with the musicians on stage with the actors. Ten years ago, Sarah Caldwell brought Schnittke to Boston as part of “Making Music Together”, her Russian festival, and we got our first real taste of his variety and inventiveness.
No composer could be more serious, as the somber but beautiful 12-tone First Quartet suggests. But no serious composer could write zanier music, either. The difficulty with Schnittke is not that some of his pieces are long, serious, and spiritually probing whereas others are full of parodies and jokes – it’s that many are both. Who else would include an electric guitar in a multi-denominational Soviet Requiem Mass? Maybe that’s what happens when your father’s a Russian Jewish atheist and your mother’s German-Russian and Catholic.
The Kronos Quartet recorded Schnittke’s Third String Quartet, with its echoes of Orlando di Lasso, Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata and Grosse Fuge, and Shostakovich, back in 1987 (on its Winter Was Hard album). That performance is now part of a new two-disc set, Alfred Schnittke: The Complete String Quartets (Nonesuch), along with more recent performances of the First, the elegiac and agitated Second, and the melancholy Fourth. There’s also the brief In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky, from 1971, and the Kronos’s arrangement of the second movement of Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Choir – a section called “Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled with Grief”.
I’m glad the Kronos has come back to Schnittke. Too much of what this group has recorded I’d call Contemporary Lite – the new-music version of easy listening. I want music to be appealing but I don’t want it to be thin. Schnittke’s has backbone. And a face. Look at his huge, cadaverous eyes on the cover of the liner notes. Having suffered multiple strokes, he lived in the shadow of the valley of death – though I suspect his sense of grief, and cheeky laughter in the face of it, was temperamental, not merely medical. The heavier the demands on the Kronos Quartet, the better it plays, so this is one of the group’s very best recordings.
There are also wonderful new recordings of the Second and Third Quartets by the Lark Quartet (on Arabesque) that tend to be more spacious in tempo than the Kronos, less electric, but perhaps warmer. Rounding out the disc is one of Schnittke’s greatest chamber works, the ghostly Piano Quintet, which he composed in memory of his mother. At the keyboard is no less than Gary Graffman (playing with both hands). The Quintet’s remarkable Andante is a weird waltz, with the strings wailing in semitones while the piano bounces away. It’s terrifying. And hilarious – the most moving and extreme example of the way Schnittke chose to confront life and death in all his music.