The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.
The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. For all its apparent frivolity, the humour gradually seems rather superficial; the movement’s real substance lies beneath, and is very much more unsettling. The ideas from the first movement are now explored in much greater depth in ‘Recitativo’, the rocking semitones and slithering violas in particular. Here, the prophecy about clusters comes true; in fact, the movement is an astonishingly miasmic creation, Schnittke’s string parts positively oozing from note to note in a gripping display of texture music. And, despite the increasingly desperate displays from the two solo violins, it’s the textures that ultimately predominate here, all hope of melody lost in the increasingly vast morass of notes. To this end, the movement’s conclusion is spectacular, all the strings (working upwards from the basses) gradually removing their mutes, eventually swamping the soloists. The fourth movement, ‘Cadenza’, is the soloists’ riposte: a flailing fortissimo gush of notes, increasingly florid and improvisatory, as the violinists put the world to rights. It concludes, beautifully incongruously, back in the world of pastiche, a short transition—replete with final trill!—leading to the penultimate ‘Rondo’ movement. Schnittke jump cuts his neo-Baroque material with, of all things, a harpsichard tango (first used in his soundtrack to the film Agony, about which more on Thursday), somehow interweaving them in a way that makes (if it’s not a contradiction in terms with music like this) perfect sense. Just as the movement reaches its emotional zenith, out of nowhere, the nursery tune from the beginning resurfaces, clattering away as before, the strings sliding up to their highest registers. Concerto Grosso No. 1 ends with a ghostly ‘Postludio’, the hocketed semitone idea now almost out of sight, the soloists picking out the notes on stratospherically high harmonics; they plunge to the ground (the strings taking the opportunity briefly to rekindle their faux-Vivaldi) only to soar once again, the whole orchestra finally locked into a tight, unmoving chord.
It was followed by the world première of three fragments from a cantata, commissioned from Schnittke by the London Sinfonietta in 1994, but incomplete at his death four years later. This is music in every sense a world away from the Concerto Grosso; Schnittke’s last years (as Gerard McBurney elaborates upon in the illuminating pre-performance talk) brought about a very different compositional style, due to the ravages of no fewer than four strokes. This is abundantly apparent in the three movements heard here; there’s a lightness of touch that’s almost shocking at first, even Webern-esque in its delicacy and restraint. Yet, while Schnittke is unmistakably present (especially in the vigorous later material), it’s difficult to put faith in music left unfinished at his death. Dare one suggest this is more the London Sinfonietta wanting to get their money’s worth than anything else?
The second part of the concert was a performance of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 4, a work burgeoning with religious sensibilities. Built around the rosary’s traditional three-part structure, Schnittke draws on Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic traditions, combining material from Lutheran Chorales, Znamenny chant and Gregorian plainsong with an additional semitone motif to hint at their combined origins in Judaism. This source material is the basis for a series of 22 variations, that programmatically trace the key events in the life of Christ. These ideas are all cast into a single, 40-minute movement, resulting in a dense and kaleidoscopic work, every bar of which feels overwhelmed with emotion. This is no tone poem, however; the work is arguably most engaging by not seeking to chart the progress of the work’s programme, allowing the ebb and flow of its drama to carry one along.
Opening bells summon our attention, and Schnittke immediately makes plain that three instruments—piano, harpsichord and celesta—are of prime importance in the work to follow. Indeed, as things unfold, these three instruments (with the Concerto Grosso somewhat still in mind) take on a kind of ‘continuo’ role, underpinning, even directing the flow of the Symphony. Quietness pervades the first few minutes (Andante con pesante), gentle lines on flute and bassoon being softly tickled by the strings; ominous brass notes change everything, the ‘continuo’ picks up the pace, and the orchestra starts to flex its muscles, the brass especially so. After this episode has subsided, the winds return to their more delicate ideas, this time leading to a passage where rapid semiquavers start appearing throughout the instruments, the brass once again on top, pursuing a loftier music. A cadenza follows, the piano temporarily stepping away from its ‘continuo’ role, coming out with a surprisingly virtuosic and increasingly vehement display that briefly ignites the orchestra in agreement. The piano continues, and now a solo voice joins it, a tenor wordlessly intoning a melody made heady with semitone intervals. The neglected two members of the ‘continuo’ join with the piano to initiate a return to a quicker pace (Moderato); for the first time, the strings become really demonstrative, casting dark shadows over everything, and getting the brass excited once again, leading to what can only be described as a miniature romp. However, Schnittke deftly keeps the mood restrained but frenzied for some minutes; bells shudder out relentlessly, matched by hectic passages on the piano.
The work’s epicentre is an astonishingly vivid, brass-dominated maelstrom, its heavy allusions to the chorale and seemingly indomitable repeated notes taking some time to be mollified by the rest of the orchestra. The gentle piano that follows seems almost timid in its wake, despite the searching nature of its second cadenza, which ushers in another voice, this time a countertenor, whose chant is fragranced by distant percussion and sotto voce flutters from the flute. Another plunge back into introspection brings a gorgeous string texture; but again, the brass (in every sense) clamour for attention, causing a resurgence in the orchestra that triggers an abrupt shift to a fast tempo (Vivo). Schnittke firmly applies the brakes after barely more than a minute of this, returning to the slower, more intense mood of earlier (Moderato – Andante con pesante), quickly diminishing to a softly buzzing pianissimo, where the ‘continuo’ becomes prominent. The material thins to sparse crotchets and quavers, worried by trills and tremolandi, ultimately forming a barely-moving backdrop to the choir, that joins in for the final minutes of the piece. The choral material uses the music from all four Christian traditions in a mellifluous counterpoint, a symbolic synthesis reflecting Schnittke’s own belief in the unity of these religious strands.