In the Labyrinth of Alfred Schnittke [Between Two Worlds]

Written by: Richard Whitehouse

In the Labyrinth of Alfred Schnittke

Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Foyers

Sunday 22 November 2009

Alfred Schnittke (1934-98)

The title of this day’s worth of events said it all. What began at 10 in the morning with discussion of Alfred Schnittke’s music and writings (including the world premiere of Six Piano Preludes from 1954), continued at 1 p.m. with the director Andrei Khrzhanowsky discussing his collaboration with the composer on seven films.

Only at 3 o’clock did the musical portion get going in earnest, Sir Timothy Ackroyd alternating with pianist Boris Petrushansky in giving the intricate Five Aphorisms (1990) that Schnittke wrote to preface five typically searching poems by Joseph Brodsky (the same sequence as at the premiere). After this, Vladimir Jurowski made a rare appearance as harpsichordist with the violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, violist Alexander Zemtsov and members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Three Madrigals (1981) – settings of three poems by Francisco Tanzer in French, German and English that find Schnittke’s polystylism at its most rarefied – enticingly sung by soprano Allison Bell. Cellist Alexander Ivashkin joined Petrushansky for the ‘Epilogue’ from the ballet Peer Gynt (1986), arranged in 1992 at the request of Mstislav Rostropovich and in which the combative interplay of cello and piano eventually reaches the would-be transcendence of a choral halo provided by pre-recorded tape.

After the interval, Sitkovetsky gave a spirited rendition of the First Violin Sonata (1963), long the earliest work by which Schnittke was widely known, in which he was ably partnered by Petrushansky (whose father had taken part in the Western premiere with dedicatee Mark Lubotsky some 44 years earlier). In its skilful amalgamation of musical styles, this is a veritable blueprint for what Schnittke went on to do. The remaining works gave free reign to the theatrical side of Schnittke’s imagination. Three Scenes (1980) unfold to a scenario as oblique as it is speculative, though one in which the comings and goings around a vibraphone and the vocalise of a female coffee-grinder seem a little passé. Not so Music to an Imaginary Play (1981), in which a flute monologue of spellbinding poise is framed by march-like ditties in which the composer’s humour is at its most inane. Jurowski and members of the LPO gave their all in music that Russian members of the audience had no difficulty in appreciating.

A “free but ticketed” event in the Purcell Room at 5.30 witnessed the UK premiere of the Concerto for Electric Instruments Schnittke worked on at the turn of the 1960s and whose score was only recently relocated. Those expecting music at the cutting-edge of Paris or Cologne would inevitably have been disappointed, but the fascination of hearing the recently graduated composer working with then state-of-the-art synthesizers was undoubted. After a lively Allegro strongly reminiscent of Shostakovich, a capricious scherzo ran directly into a finely-wrought Andante that underlined the composer’s capacity for formal logic as much as it did his textural ingenuity. The work is listed as unfinished, though whether a finale was necessary is debatable. Ivashkin ably directed an octet of musicians (the music conceived for instruments no longer in working order convincingly rendered here by sampler keyboards), with thereminist Lydia Kavina as ‘first among equals’ and sound-engineer Mariano Nuñez West ensuring a sympathetic ambience in the notoriously dry acoustic.

A return to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the 6.15 concert brought a trilogy of concertante works. Zemtsov was no less inside the idiom of Monologue (1989) as he had been at the Royal College of Music a week earlier, but its unrelieved dourness and relative formlessness proved hardly more satisfying. Neither does Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) find Schnittke at his best, but with Petrushansky in command of the solo part’s rhetorical excesses such that the single-movement form was revealed with effortless clarity, the experience was much more absorbing. Best by far, however, was First Concerto Grosso (1977) whose fearless throwing together of three centuries of music – classical or otherwise – set a precedent for post-modern discourse that has hardly been matched. Violinists Hun-Ouk Park and Agata Darashkaite were occasionally overawed by the string-players drawn from the RCM Chamber Orchestra, but their commitment was not in doubt. Kumi Matsuo ably handled the writing for harpsichord and prepared piano (taken by Schnittke at early performances), while Jurowski directed with gusto as well as a keen sense of the work’s place in musical history.

If all three of these works were in some way typical of ‘mainstream’ Schnittke, the music-theatre piece The Yellow Sound (1974) finds him at his most esoteric. Vassili Kandinsky’s fusion of sound, words and vision is an abstruse though fascinating product of high Expressionism; one which makes no compromise either in concept or content. A 40-minute whole needing to be seen as well as heard, it sounds unlike even the modernist Schnittke of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Stockhausen, even the much underrated Vinko Globokar come to mind) – until the jagged and fragmentary chorale, bells to the fore, of the final minutes. A work to surprise all those who think they know Schnittke, it was treated to a superb staging by Annabel Arden – with Allison Bell excellent as the often-hidden protagonist, Matthew Morley ensuring spilt-second accuracy in the intricate lighting requirements and Jurowski securing a visceral response from the members of the London Philharmonic heard alongside a vocal ensemble drawn from MMVoices. Such a presentation deserves to be made commercially available.

Perhaps the strangeness of this latter work stems from the volatile nature of Schnittke’s output as a whole between the completion of his First Symphony in 1972 and that of First Concerto Grosso five years on. In which case, Piano Quintet (1976) is the key: emerging after a lengthy gestation, and dedicated to the memory of his mother, this piece – as elegiac as it is transcendent – is arguably the most unified of his major works; each of its five movements building motivically and expressively on its predecessors towards a notably serene (because accepting) resolution. Sitkovetsky, Zemtsov and Petrushansky were joined by violinist Vesselin Gellev and cellist Kristina Blaumane in an account the more intense for being a late-evening Foyer event, with all the risks of outside interference this entailed. Even so, rounding off such an eventful day with Schnittke’s masterpiece was what really mattered.

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