The radiant rowdiness of Alfred Schnittke
Tom Service, The Guardian, 15 January 2001
Alfred Schnittke’s music is defined by diversity. His symphonies lurch from modernist violence to quotations from Beethoven; his concertos contain everything from baroque pastiche to jazz solos; and his chamber music is brutal then beguiling.
This BBC weekend was the first major retrospective of Schnittke’s work since his death in 1998; it included appearances from his closest friends, including violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Alexander Ivashkin, and the composer’s widow, the pianist Irina Schnittke.
There was no more telling contrast in the first two days of concerts than that between the riotous First Symphony, composed in 1969-72, and the Concerto for Mixed Choir, written in 1985. The symphony was played in the Barbican by Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, while the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury performed the concerto in the haunting intimacy of St Giles, Cripplegate.
Schnittke’s First Symphony is one of the great showpieces of the recent orchestral repertoire, and the BBCSO’s performance was a major event. The 70-minute symphony began with every musician playing as they walked on stage, creating a ferocious dissonance. It goes on to parody genres of music from military marches to waltzes, and the niceties of concert-hall convention.
After one outburst, a violin and piano duo started a separate performance in front of the first violins – disregarded by the orchestra, which continued to play. Violinist Daniel Hope and pianist Simon Mulligan gave a hyperactive recital, mercilessly satirising the virtuoso tradition. At the end of the symphony, the players continued performing on the journey backstage, only to reappear exactly as they did at the start of the symphony, before Brabbins finally called a halt to proceedings.
Next to this extraordinary collage, the serene concentration and austere atmosphere of the Concerto for Mixed Choir, settings of sacred verses by the 9th century Armenian Grigori Narekatsi, could have been the work of another composer. Yet there is a profound connection between the archaic style of the concerto and the “polystylism”, as Schnittke described it, of the symphony.
Although the First Symphony is often hilarious, there is a tragic tension in the piece between its hidden architecture and the fragments of music Schnittke pastes over it. The funny stuff on the surface has a deadly serious meaning; it’s the modernist structure underneath that Schnittke is really parodying. So the timeless qualities of diatonic melody and plainchant in the choir concerto (and in other of Schnittke’s works of the 1980s performed over the weekend, such as the Fourth Symphony) are one way of bypassing the dilemma of the symphony. Yet the ultimate irony is that these languages are no less borrowed than any passage of the First Symphony.
At the end of his life, Schnittke found a musical language that escaped the conflicts of his previous music. The London Sinfonietta gave the world premiere of Fragment, part of a piece they had commissioned from Schnittke in 1994, but which he never finished. There is an amazing conviction and clarity about the work’s three existing movements. Even more striking was the British premiere of the radiant Eighth Symphony, given by the BBCSO under conductor Eri Klas. There, the earlier tussle between styles and structures is replaced by a music that is more unified but also more terrifying: a stillness and calm that seems to reflect Schnittke’s gaze upon death.