Alfred Schnittke: Between Two Worlds [RCM/Jurowski]

Schnittke
Gogol Suite
Monologue
Prokofiev
Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111

Sir Timothy Ackroyd (reciter)

Alexander Zemtsov (viola)

Royal College of Music Chamber Orchestra
Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 November, 2009
Venue: Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London

Alfred Schnittke (1934-98)The “Between Two Worlds” retrospective (largely) devoted to the music of Alfred Schnittke had a worthwhile entrée with this concert at the Royal College of Music. Certainly anyone encountering his music for the first time received a far from inappropriate ‘taster’ with his Gogol Suite – assembled in 1980 by his long-time advocate Gennadi Rozhdestvensky from music composed four years earlier for a production of “The Overcoat”. Heard in isolation, the eight movements throw up any number of oblique allusions; such as are tempered but slightly by having spoken interpolations from Gogol’s writings. Narrated by Timothy Ackroyd with a beguiling mixture of fantasy and resignation, these arguably intrigued more than they clarified, yet the qualities of Schnittke’s music – capricious, often subversive and drolly fatalistic by turns – was vividly conveyed in this fine performance by the augmented RCM Symphony Orchestra.

Vladimir Jurowski, dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna. Photograph: Sheila RockA fair degree of platform resetting saw the RCM Chamber Orchestra take the stage for Monologue (1989), a follow-up to the Viola Concerto that the composer wrote for Yuri Bashmet and has proved one of his most popular works (and which, if only for that reason, has rightly been omitted from this festival). Essentially a transitional work between the poly-stylistic overkill of Schnittke’s music from the 1980s and the often-stark austerity of that written during the 1990s, the present piece veers between dark introspection and febrile intensity without attempting to elaborate them into a more integrated or cohesive statement. Not one of Schnittke’s more enduring works, then, though this was hardly the fault of Alexander Zemtsov; his impassioned and technically immaculate playing ably abetted by the RCM string players, who made the most of Schnittke’s fastidious sectional writing.

Even so, it was the performance of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony (1947) after the interval that proved the highlight. Surprisingly unlucky in terms of recording and overshadowed in concert-performance by its predecessor, this masterly (and unexpected) reinvention of the Beethoven model unerringly hit the mark on this occasion: whether in the bracing contrast between the first movement’s main themes and volcanic eruption of its extended development; the unforced inevitability with which the Largo pivots between tragedy and pathos; and the headlong élan of the finale, its momentum judged by Vladimir Jurowski so that the coda’s violent change of perspective proved as unexpected as its accusatory anger was overwhelming. Any imperfections were as little against the completeness of the whole: certainly anyone considering student orchestras as not capable of great performances would have needed to think again after this.

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