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.
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.