Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

by 5:4

Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focusing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. As the music develops, growing in complexity, they seem to run rings around each other, and by its eventual softer conclusion, there’s a decidedly frosty mood between the two, with no sense of the conflict abated. The final movement (Allegro Vivace) sets off at top speed, driven by the strings, only to burn themselves out within about 30 seconds. Piano and solo violin alternate with the rest of the strings, in the process robbing each other of any meaningful momentum, the pace constantly having to be restarted; it has all the trappings of a finale with none of the conviction. Only later does a powerful semblance of unity finally start to emerge, and even then, it’s rudely cut off by the piano, stopping to resort once again to the portentous material with which it began both previous movements. The violin makes an attempt at a grand final flourish; the rest of the strings merely groan.

It was followed by the Monologue for viola and string orchestra. Soft trills accompany the viola’s beautiful opening melody, the strings conspicuously hiding in the shadows. Only when the viola builds in intensity, introducing louder double stops, do they emerge, and a collaboration begins in earnest. The strings quickly come to the fore, but imitating the viola’s material, keeping it central in their vision; in short, they follow it wherever it goes, through darkly melancholic passages in their lowest registers, over spikey, staccato terrain, and beyond, forming a bedrock upon which the viola—painfully withdrawn, despite appearances to the contrary—can lament wildly. A brief stab at a solo cadenza gets the strings excited, and they accidentally stomp all over it; the viola changes tack, dolefully sitting on a single note, iterating it again and again as the rest hover nearby. Using the viola’s main melody, they coax the viola into reanimation, a series of trills that grows in determination and intent, leading to a new episode in which the repeated note idea is transformed into a decisive, hammer-blow motif; this seems to galvinise everyone, bringing about the work’s first true climax. Dense, dissonant afterthoughts ensue, the viola now seemingly at odds with the strings, which ultimately appear to be hell-bent on enveloping it in their clusters and swirling glissandi. Everything stops—has, in fact, to stop, and something of the viola’s opening material returns in a gorgeously rich, quasi-tonal passage. There’s a brief final push, and everyone slumps into an increasingly whispered coda, the strings seemingly frozen, the viola grinding its way to nothing.

Part two of the concert began with Schnittke’s String Trio, composed in 1985, the result of a commission from the Alban Berg Foundation, to celebrate Berg’s centenary. The opening movement (Moderato) is obsessed by a single idea, a falling figure heard at the outset. With the commission in mind, there are echoes of the compositional manner of Berg’s Lyric Suite in the thorough-going, convoluted way Schnittke shapes his material. In some ways it feels almost impenetrable, being so single-minded; passages such as the inexplicable gallops, the faux-Schubert interludes, as well as the obvious, distorted references to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ are all the more unsettling for their apparent incongruity. By contrast, the latter movement (Adagio) opens with a boldly rising theme, one that also harks back to earlier music, something ethereal and folk-like. Soon after, a messed-up hymn seems to want to emerge from this, trapped beneath the incessant trills that cover the music’s surface; and later, a high melody on harmonics makes its presence felt. Schnittke seems to be evoking a kind of confined lyricism: music crying out to sing, but—for reasons unknown—unable to. After a time, the bizarre gallop rears up, prompting further glimpses of these melodies, still unable to break free. Finally, the first movement’s theme returns; it sounds magically clearer and more defined than before, but in the wake of all that’s transpired, just sounds forced, even fake. The violin’s final phrase makes an ascent that wobbles weirdly and then dissolves—a conclusion every bit as disorienting as the rest of the String Trio. It has to be one of Schnittke’s most obtuse works, yet despite that, is remarkably beautiful.

The concert ended with the Concerto for Three for string trio and strings, one of Schnittke’s last works, composed in 1994. The typically non-descript indication ‘Moderato’ belies both the wealth of imagination and fiery delivery demanded of the players in the first movement. There’s ever the sense that the players are here grappling with some epic problem (is it too easy to draw parallels with the composer, at this stage of his life?); the music sounds heavy and laboured, and that’s absolutely nothing to do with the playing of these superlative soloists. The strings seem uncertain what exactly to do, confronted as they are by a cello (the focus in this movement) groping around in its lowest register for so much of the time. The viola comes forward in the relatively short second movement, beginning with a chromatic melody that leaps round the octaves, preceded and occasionally answered by heavy repeated note punctuations from the strings. Despite the angular lines and obstreperous manner, the string textures do begin to thin just a touch, allowing for a more lyrical music to emerge, admittedly of a tortured kind, and as such not dissimilar to that heard in the String Trio. ‘Largo’ is the indication for the third movement, where the violin finally makes its first appearance. Schnittke almost brings the ensemble to a point beyond mere slowness, as though the instruments were suspended in a liquid. Loud interjections temporarily dispel the mood, but it’s to this viscous material that Schnittke continually returns, culminating in a rich episode for the soloists alone, the only time they play together. Beginning with cello, each instrument evokes motifs from earlier music, finishing as a delicately melancholic minuet. The ridiculous final movement is all pointless busyness and tremolandi, a desperate dance of death; inanely, insanely rapid, mercifully curtailed—deus ex machina—after barely a minute by an abrupt fortissimo cluster from an instrument alien to the piece: on this occasion, powerfully delivered by an organ.

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