Alfred Harrievich Schnittke (1934-1998)

Alfred Schnittke: Seeking the Soul

Posted in Events, Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 21, 2010

Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 21 January 2001

(Schnittke actually said “The goal of my life is to unify “E” and “U” even if I break my neck in so doing!”, “E” being Ernste Musik, “U” being Unterhaltungsmusik.)

You knew they were die-hard Schnittke fans. Nobody coughed …

Alfred Schnittke said that his goal as a composer was to bridge the gap between serious music and music for entertainment, “even if I break my neck doing it”. Today that ambition may strike us as a less literal risk than would have been the case in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and early 1980s, when Schnittke’s compositional powers were at their height.

His relationship with the grim regime was always volatile, his music at turns the object of adulation and condemnation. Officialdom governed his every move (or, more often, failure to move, since for much of his life he was forbidden from travelling outside the Soviet Union, even to hear performances of his own music). If, for most of us today, that era of Soviet state control has faded to mere reported memory, its painful legacy was felt afresh at the Barbican’s Schnittke extravaganza last weekend. Every note of his music, even at its buoyant best, carries the ironic shadow of adversity. Wit becomes a weapon.

The BBC’s annual Composer Portraits have long been a pleasurable obligation in the January calendar. Judging by the surreal silence and absence of arbitrary bronchial display which attends each concert, these marathons attract only dedicated music lovers. The joy is that this species, supposedly threatened, is determinedly alive; many of the concerts were sold out.

All were well attended and hungrily received. To spend three evenings and two days in the Barbican, or communing with Radio 3 which broadcasts the entire proceedings, requires a certain staying power. Yet the prerequisite for enjoyment is curiosity, not expertise. A sense of shared discovery unites the audience. An excellent complementary programme of talks and films (Schnittke wrote some 66 film scores) exists to fill any gaps in our knowledge. No one should feel daunted.

“Seeking the Soul” was an appropriately ambiguous title for the weekend (who was doing the seeking – the composer or his audience?). Schnittke’s chameleon ability to change mode and mood has made his musical dialectic seem unfairly elusive or superficial. A German-born Russian, a Jew who embraced Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, throughout his life (1934-98) he sought a homeland, a place of acceptance.

His eclectic use of jazz, baroque, mainstream classical and Russian Orthodox chant, tossed together in a bubble-and-squeak of musical variety, might seem to dash any hope of finding the real Schnittke. The reverse is true. Immersion in his music, from expansive, collage-like symphonies to unadorned chamber or choral works, merely confirmed the singularity of his artistic vision. His mission, always, is to wrestle with the musical tradition he has inherited, both within Russia and beyond.

In his favoured form, the concerto grosso, he borrows from the Italian baroque, not to imitate as a neoclassicist ( à la Stravinsky) might, but to explore a type of music which Russia itself never possessed. The string quartets survey the Austro-German tradition, as if sampling Beethoven’s entire output and reconfiguring it, refining and redefining it in his own terms. The Keller Quartet gave haunting accounts of Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 in St Giles’s, Cripplegate, one of the weekend’s many highlights.

In similar vein, at the frenzied climax of the Violin Concerto No. 4, the soloist has to mime virtuosity, his bow sawing crazily above the strings, as if silenced grotesquely by his accompanists. Here, the violinist was the work’s dedicatee, the dazzling Gidon Kremer, who added spice and brilliance to several concerts during the weekend. He was accompanied by the BBCSO under Martyn Brabbins, who in the same concert negotiated the mesmerically theatrical Symphony No. 1 with assurance and skill. In this raw, explosive work, scored for huge orchestra, the players walk on stage one by one, then off, then on again, tuning frantically in parody of symphony concert conventions.

At one point, the music is interrupted by a pianist and violinist (Daniel Hope and Simon Mulligan) who come and start their own anarchic jazz improvisations while the conductor looks on, bewildered. When performed with the kind of conviction shown here, Schnittke’s anarchy achieves strange and compelling grandeur.

The BBC players, who valiantly mastered a formidable number of works for the occasion, were less secure in the late Symphony No. 8, written in 1994, four years before the composer’s death when he was already incapacitated by a series of strokes. Nevertheless, a few fluffs could not cloud the spare intensity and transparent textures of this remarkable work, here conducted by Eri Klas in its UK premiere. In the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the BBC Singers (who performed the inspiring Choir Concerto) and BBC Philharmonic, the London Sinfonietta and a group of fine soloists, Schnittke had the best possible advocates.

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Nagasaki: Prom 52: LSO/Gergiev at the Albert Hall/Radio 3

Posted in Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 20, 2010

Schnittke’s oratorio about Nagasaki was worth hearing once, but it was a relief to hear real music (Shostakovich) afterwards

Hilary Finch, The Times, 26 August 2009

Who would dare to write an oratorio about Nagasaki? Perhaps only a 24-year-old student, fired by a Soviet propaganda poet and eager to summon all his youthful strength and idealism to express the inexpressible. The best that can be said about Alfred Schnittke’s 1958 Nagasaki, an oratorio for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, heard in Britain for the first time at Monday’s Prom, is in the composer’s own words. This was, he said, “a very honest work … where I was absolutely sincere”.

Forget tone clusters and polystylism: this is poster art, drawn in strong, bold shapes and colours. It tips dangerously (too dangerously for authorities at the time) towards Expressionism and is heady with the language of every composer whose music touched Schnittke’s hypersensitised palate. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bach, Hindemith, Bartók, Stravinsky, Orff: they’re all there, jostling for position in the huge orchestral battery.

Woodwind fan the flames, pitched percussion, trombones, tuba and organ crackle with fiery anger. The London Symphony Chorus strained helplessly to find a vocal strength and focus comparable to their Russian counterparts. They chanted, grappled with Schnittke’s arduous student counterpoint, and hummed with the rising “sun of peace”. Elena Zhidkova “walked quietly on this scorched land”, rather as Prokofiev’s lonely woman trod the icy battlefields in Alexander Nevsky. And an electronic theremin wailed amid the numb radiation of celesta and piano. With its hideously inadequate orchestral explosion and its distancing rhetoric, this Nagasaki was worth hearing — perhaps, and just once.

It was a relief to hear real music and profound responses after the interval. Valery Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony that was searingly powerful in its raw energy and cumulative strength.

Soul searching with Schnittke

Posted in Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on April 8, 2010

Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 16 January 2001

The significance of Seeking the Soul, the title of the BBC’s Alfred Schnittke weekend, became increasingly apparent as the final day wore on. The culminating work was the Faust Cantata, a drama of perdition, of the irretrievable loss of the human soul into a void of silence.

“Faust is the theme of my whole life,” Schnittke is reported as saying, “and I am already afraid of it.”

A defining moment of his adolescence was his discovery of Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the novel about a composer whose music issues from the gulf that is his own soullessness. Schnittke sets a Faust text used by Mann’s fictional character, filling the gulf with his own garish amalgam of memory, allusion and reminiscence. The chorus pontificate in Brahmsian fashion. Faust is damned to a tango – part Kurt Weill, part rock – sung here by Susan Bickley, her voice emerging from cavernous depths and rising to ribald shrieks of diablerie. At the end the music ticks away into percussive nothingness as the lights dim and performers and audience are dissolved into darkness.

Leonard Slatkin conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with a dreadful relish, prefacing the work with the Third Symphony, written for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1981 to celebrate 300 years of the Austro-German symphonic tradition. Once again, sound heaves itself out of a silence, gradually coalescing into a Brucknerian, architectonic structure. Yet, despite the grandeur, nihilism pervades as the allusions and reminiscences proliferate and shift. Mozartian piano swirls are suddenly fractured by the eruption of violent sonic hell. Symphonic tradition itself seems imperilled in Schnittke’s music, which fascinates and unnerves through its very lack of centredness and certainty.

The mordant bleakness of his vision was again emphasised in a lunchtime concert in the chill of St Giles’s Church, Cripplegate, when Gidon Kremer, Schnittke’s friend and advocate, led a series of works for string ensemble. Ula Ulijana on the viola and Marta Sudraba on the cello joined him for the String Trio. Commissioned to commemorate the centenary of Berg’s birth, it subjects a fragment of melody that is almost Happy Birthday To You to bleak chromatic contortions, as if warning an infant of the perils of existence. The same soloists played the Concerto for Three, which allows each player a moment of brief, magisterial assertion before everything is swept away in violence.

Yet there are moments of redemption in Schnittke that overturn the sombreness of it all. At a late afternoon concert, with the BBC Philharmonic and Vassily Sinaisky, we were allowed to hear what is probably Schnittke’s greatest score, his Second Cello Concerto, with the phenomenal Torlief Thedeen as soloist. The work culminates in an overwhelming passacaglia that echoes the finales of both Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Berg’s Violin Concerto. Despite some interruptions of coruscating terror, it progresses with ritual solemnity towards a genuine, numinous transcendence. Just for once, you feel that the terrible void has finally been filled.

Recalling a Composer’s Two Sides, Light and Dark

Posted in Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on March 20, 2010

Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 29 April 1999

There are two warring impulses in the music of Alfred Schnittke, the Russian composer who died last year. One is a sense of humor that takes the form of peculiar juxtapositions, allusions to other composers and styles, and thwarted expectations. The other is a seemingly implacable bleakness. Some works favor one of these qualities; in others, both fight for primacy.

“Remembering Alfred Schnittke”, a tribute on Monday evening at Alice Tully Hall, put these elements in high relief. The performers were billed as the Winnipesaukee Chamber Players and represented the Lake Winnipesaukee Music Festival, in New Hampshire.

Mostly it was a family affair: Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, was the pianist in an energetic, mercurial account of the Third Sonata for Violin and Piano (1994). Her partner was Oleh Krysa, a violinist for whom Schnittke wrote several works. With Mr. Krysa’s son, Peter, also a violinist, and Peter’s wife, Rachel Lewis Krysa, a cellist, Mrs. Schnittke played the Piano Trio (1992), a work that has a Shostakovich-like pessimism, but also a recurring figure in which repeating arpeggios bring Philip Glass’s music to mind. In other works Tatiana Tchekina, the wife of Oleh Krysa, was the pianist. (Adrienne Sommerville, a violist, performed without apparent family ties.)

The concert began with a work by Mahler, a Piano Quartet movement, composed in 1876. Mahler, at 16, had not yet found his own voice; here he used Dvořák’s. The work was included as a preface to Schnittke’s Piano Quartet (1988), which uses Mahler’s sketches for a second movement as a springboard. The Schnittke piece begins as a work of dark consonance and grows increasingly dense and hazy before the Mahler fragment lightens the mood.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a work that showed Schnittke’s light-spirited and dark sides in equal measure, the Concerto Grosso No. 1 for Two Violins, Harpsichord, Prepared Piano and String Orchestra (1977). Ms. Tchekina brought an appealing vividness to the two keyboard parts (the prepared piano was made to sound like a Chinese percussion orchestra); Oleh and Peter Krysa played the violin lines with the flexibility necessary for its deft leaps between quasi-Baroque and searing modernist styles. And the Eastman Virtuosi, a student string orchestra, gave a polished, robust performance under the baton of Bradley Lubman.

The radiant rowdiness of Alfred Schnittke

Posted in Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on March 9, 2010

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.

Alfred Schnittke: Signs of Life

Posted in Recordings, Reviews by R.A.D. Stainforth on January 12, 2010

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.

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