Programme note by Nicholas Williams, from Schnittke: A Celebration, Wigmore Hall/Barbican Hall, London, 17 February – 8 March 1990
Moderato : Tempo di Valse : Andante : Lento : Moderato pastorale
Composed between 1972 and 1976, and dedicated to the memory of the composer’s mother, Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is the most Russian in spirit of his mature works, with the exception of those employing native liturgical chant such as the Second String Quartet and the Concerto for mixed chorus. This Russianness is inevitably bound up with the choice of medium; for any Soviet composer writing for piano and string quartet must acknowledge the Piano Quintet of Shostakovich, a profoundly Russian work by a composer Schnittke profoundly admires. His influence can be heard not only in the sound of keening strings and dark-hued lugubrious string trills, but also in the shared emotional world of darkness and light (the work has also been scored for orchestra, and entitled ‘In Memoriam’). An important role is also played by Schnittke’s characteristic use of ‘polystylism’, an allusion technique which is all the richer for being at the second degree; Schnittke’s second movement waltz, for example, alludes not only to the nineteenth century form of Tchaikovsky, but also to the allusions to that form found in the chamber music of Shostakovich, including his own Piano Quintet and the Eighth String Quartet.
Whereas the five movements of the Shostakovich are each self-contained, however, those of the Schnittke attain a unity of conception through constant thematic transformation of the opening phrase (itself an allusion, being no more than a chromatic variant of a simple cadential changing note figure) and from the fundamental nature of the musical material. Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Ligeti, Schnittke has worked on the edges and extremes of sound, making the Piano Quintet a sustained conflict between musical opposites: between sound and silence; between the micro-intervals and chromatic polyphony of the strings, and the equal temperament and triadic harmony of the piano; between the relentless chiming of repeated notes at extremes of the keyboard register and dense quartet clusters built up from the intense overlapping of irrational rhythms. There is no compromise between these factors; they exist suspended in a condition of stasis, very Russian, which only resolves in the final Moderato pastorale as a gentle piano ostinato, simply the notes of the harmonic series, confronts the motto theme in chromatic and microtonal versions – and survives to have the final word.
Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet is a dark and heavy planet. Even in the midst of his bewilderingly prolific output, this extremely personal work commands a massive gravity; it seems to orient, arrange, and set in motion so many of Schnittke’s works, before and after. If one wants to find the founding trauma for such a consistently agonizing body of artistic work, it can be found in the Piano Quintet.
This centrality may owe much to the quintet’s function: conceived as a memorial to the composer’s mother, who died of a stroke in September 1972, here’s a composition whose substance was drawn from a real event, powerfully tangible and irrevocable. This kind of reality had not been Schnittke’s basis for previous works. His Symphony No. 1 (1972) and other contemporaneous works are brazenly extroverted stylistic carnivals, full of fantasy, denunciation, and dark humor, and are largely artistic statements on art or cultural critiques on culture itself.
In this light, the Piano Quintet was a radical departure into an entirely personal sphere. This shift caused the composer tremendous difficulty. After finishing the first movement very quickly, Schnittke was blocked, “unable to continue because I had to take what I wrote from an imaginary space defined in terms of sound and put it into the psychological space as defined by life, where excruciating pain seems almost unserious, and one must fight for the right to use dissonance, consonance, and assonance.”
Hence the Piano Quintet was shelved, and Schnittke did not resume work on it for almost four years. When he did pick up the work again, his musical temperament had changed, becoming more distilled, tauter, and more unabashedly morbid. Schnittke had perfected a personal sound, a dense, claustrophobic web of chromatic clusters. This signatory sound, rich yet obscure, serves as the backdrop for much of his succeeding work, and is seamlessly crafted into this work. The second movement is a wraith-like slow waltz on the name of B-A-C-H (H in German notation is B, B is B flat). The waltz is the only “polystylistic” concession in the piece, and throughout the movement consistently descends back into tortuous clusters.
The next two movements form the heart of the work, pulling it increasingly inward. Schnittke explains that they “are real experiences of grief which I would prefer not to comment on because they are of a very personal nature.” Both movements bind themselves in shells of stasis; each movement suffers its own shocked outburst and epiphany. Eventually the fourth movement ruptures the thick web of chromaticism that seems to paralyze the work.
After its crushing, cathartic crisis on a single, repeated note, the movement ebbs into the work’s final bars, based on a 14-measure theme repeated 14 times in the piano. Over this theme, Schubert-like in its studied rusticity, one hears blanched recollections of previous passages; everything liquefies as it materializes, swept along by the piano theme’s current. Eventually a faded reconciliation emerges and the strings are silenced; the work ends on the sonic outskirts as Schnittke instructs the pianist to play tonlos, “without tone.”
There is hyper-sentimentality in Schnittke’s quintet, a weird excess of morose emotion that exists in few other of his works. Somehow the sentimentality works here, perhaps because of the sincerity of the utterance, perhaps because, despite wearing his heart on his sleeve, Schnittke is not merely personal but also highly idiosyncratic. The work is an uncomfortable twentieth century classic, and a key to Schnittke’s music in general.
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.