Doing it in Styles

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

Each January over the past decade the BBC Symphony Orchestra has arranged an ample three-day weekend festival at the Barbican in which the spotlight is turned on a major 20th century musical figure. With the inclusion of Janacek, Hindemith, Lutoslawski, Ives, Martinu, Messiaen and Weill, the achievements of some of the past century’s most idiosyncratic and enigmatic masters have been intriguingly disseminated. But maybe none come more idiosyncratic or enigmatic than the man in the limelight does this forthcoming weekend, the late Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.

The prolific Schnittke, who died in 1998, is certainly a chameleon-like figure, and precariously difficult to pin down – maybe in part to his almost unique background and circumstances. Ostensibly a Russian composer but with a German name, he was born in Russia in 1934 without a drop of Russian blood, in the town of Engels (once the capital of a German republic in the Soviet Union) of a Jewish but German-speaking father and German mother. Add to Schnittke’s prevalent Germanic background the fact that, as a boy, he spent a couple of musically-formative years in Vienna and it’s maybe not surprising that Schnittke’s lifelong composing hallmark has been called polystylism, in which he often borrows, twists, alludes to, or parodies a host of other composers in an often free-flowing, post-modernist or collage-like fashion.

Contributing further to Schnittke’s idiosyncrasy, he rose to prominence as a radical avant-gardist at a time when such a stance was certainly frowned upon in the barren cultural climate of post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Add to that a mindset that frequently seems to alternate between moods of the uttermost bleakness and despair, and savage humour on the other – the music of Alfred Schnittke certainly makes its listeners ponder just what sort of concoction they are hearing with the passing of each minute.

The conductor Martyn Brabbins, who presides over two of the Schnittke Weekend’s concerts, agrees: “When one first hears Schnittke – and I remember when I first did – it’s possible to encounter huge difficulties with his language, or maybe one should say languages. You wonder what this guy is up to? Soon though things even out and one sees it’s the very kaleidoscopic nature of the imagination that is the music’s true subject.”

Certainly for anyone unfamiliar with Schnittke’s multi-faceted idiom, a good as work as any with which to start is the encyclopaedic Symphony No.1, which Brabbins conducts this Friday. “The huge First Symphony is archetypal Schnittke,” says Brabbins, “and occupied him for three years between 1969-72. It calls for a massive orchestra and is a kind of Haydn Farewell Symphony in reverse – instead of musicians leaving the stage, they arrive on it to start this epic work. Quotations extend from medieval polyphony to Berg, Gershwin and jazz. It was premiered in Gorky and soon word got out that some very extraordinary musical happening had occurred.” In the same concert, Brabbins also conducts Schnittke’s no less extraordinary Violin Concerto No.4, with its dedicatee Gidon Kremer as soloist. “The violin was always one of Schnittke’s favourite instruments,” he comments, “which he virtually imbues with a personality which represents his own inner mischievous voice. Of course another quirk of the Fourth Concerto is just when one expects a cadenza, the soloist is called upon not to play but mime one.”

Martyn Brabbins’s other concert on Sat (at 1pm) with the London Sinfonietta brings yet more aspects of Schnittke’s curious character to the fore. “We start with the Concerto Grosso No.1 in which we see that his stylistic appropriation also extended to old forms, and here he openly subverts the relationship between the soloists and the ripieno. We end with the very bleak and very austere and sparse Symphony No.4; a genuine statement of deeply held religious faith. And in the middle there’s the world premiere of Fragment, which was commissioned by the Sinfonietta, but which Schnittke sadly didn’t live to finish.”

The plethora of potentially exciting Schnittke compositions to be aired at the Barbican over the coming weekend is almost too numerous to detail. Of the other three big orchestral concerts, Eri Klas conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a line-up which includes the Concerto Grosso No.2, the British premiere of the Symphony No.8, very reminiscent of Shostakovich, and the riotous, lavishly-scored (Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream.The weekend closes with Leonard Slatkin turning his attention to the very Germanic and ample Third Symphony and the Faust Cantata, partly inspired by Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus about a Schoenbergian composer who sells his soul to the devil. Meanwhile a range of other concerts evince much of Schnittke’s prolific chamber output being aired, including the 1st and 2nd Piano Sonatas, the 2nd and 3rd String Quartets, and music for cello and piano, played by the composer’s friend Alexander Ivashkin and his widow Irina Schnittke.

It all amounts to what should be a tremendous Schnittke Fest. With the addition of talks, lectures and film screenings, as full a picture as we have had in Britain thus far of Schnittke’s musical soul looks promised to emerge. As Martyn Brabbins concludes: “I think the entire line-up looks set to do fantastic justice to a truly major figure, for to my mind the music of Alfred Schnittke just seizes the imagination and holds it, and won’t easily let go.”

  • Barbican Hall, Friday 12 January to Sunday 14 January – Boris Berman kicks off the Schnittke Festival with Piano Sonatas 1 & 2 at 6 o’clock, then Martyn Brabbins conducts the extraordinary First Symphony in the BBCSO’s first concert at 7.30. The other BBCSO concerts are on Saturday (Eri Klas conducting the Eighth Symphony) and Sunday (Leonard Slatkin leading the Third) – both at 8 o’clock. The BBC Philharmonic and Vassily Sinaisky combine two of Schnittke’s finest pieces – Cello Concerto No.2 and Concerto Grosso 4/Symphony 5 – with Torleif Thedeen as soloist on Sunday at 4.30

  • The world premiere of Fragment, under Martyn Brabbins, comes in the Sinfonietta’s Saturday afternoon concert, which starts at 1 o’clock

  • In addition there are talks, films and concerts of choral and chamber music in both the Barbican Hall and nearby St Giles, Cripplegate

  • Ring the Barbican Box Office on 020 7638 8891 for details of weekend passes

  • All concerts will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, most of them live, while some will be recorded for deferred relay or future broadcast

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