Anniversaries

Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Cello Concerto No. 2 & Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)

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Today’s featured Alfred Schnittke concert was broadcast on 14 January 2001, and comprised two monumental pieces, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with Torleif Thedéen taking the solo role, and the dual-named Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4); Vassily Sinaisky directs the BBC Philharmonic. More than the others, this recording has suffered the effects of time (and, possibly, previous attempts at cleanup); there’s some crackle audible in the performances as well as the speech, and to add insult to injury, on the original recording (made on cassette) i neglected to use Dolby. So—despite my best efforts—my apologies for the sound quality, although the performances are so good that (for the most part) they transcend these problems.

Completed in 1990, Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is a work that dives into high lyricism at the outset, the cello’s opening gambit pitched towards the top of its compass, followed by an extensive meditation at the opposite end of the pitch spectrum, ushering in a loud declamatory statement from the orchestra; throughout this short opening movement (Moderato), the orchestra’s role is restricted to punctuating the ends of the cello’s lengthy meanderings. While it seems as though the soloist is going to stay ponderous for some time, the second movement (Allegro) abruptly establishes a tempo, and a fairly brisk one at that. The orchestra gets excited once again, but falls back almost as quickly as before; only the brass engage with the cello, although from a distance. Things continue in this vein for a while, until a more pointillistic idea initiates more assertion in the orchestra, seemingly placing their notes in the momentary gaps left by the soloist. They construct a curious waltz that fizzles immediately into a strangely sparse string chorale, in which a flexatone can just be heard. Aggression breaks out; it’s clear this is an orchestra profoundly irritated at being sidelined, and they seem to form packs that assault the soloist from all directions; for the cello’s part, its material, ever in flux, is thus instantly forgettable and yet projects itself as though each and every leaping note was agonisingly important. At the movement’s crashing final beat, one is left breathless and wondering where things stand; in this performance, there’s a significant pause at this point, which adds to the drama. Read more

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

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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. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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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. Read more

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Schnittke Week – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, Piano Quintet

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The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most outstanding composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his music, focusing on works that were included in the Barbican’s ‘Seeking the Soul’ festival, in January 2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isn’t too bad considering.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled with melodic intentions, the quartet’s gestures all concerned with making something from small fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovich’s D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an emotionally neutral term as ‘Andante’ suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the movement, made yet more telling through Schnittke’s frequent rendering of the players in the guise of a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring, although it’s lost within moments; despite being labelled ‘Agitato’, no little time is spent occupied with dark, brooding material. Read more

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Björk – The Breezeblock & Mixing It Specials

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It’s more than a little staggering to realise that today is the 45th birthday of one Björk Guðmundsdóttir, an artist i’ve followed for the entirety of her solo career and continue to admire very much (one day, i hope to explore her complete output here—when i have a couple of spare months to devote to it, that is…); to mark the occasion, two special items from the 5:4 archive.

First is my complete recording of Mary Anne Hobbs’ Breezeblock Special, devoted to Björk, broadcast on 26 October 2004. Björk’s one-hour mix—in which every song is introduced at length by Björk herself—is wonderfully diverse, and a fascinating insight into the kind of music she finds inspirational, unsurprisingly including a number of artists with whom she’s been associated: Matmos are represented by ‘Regicide’, by no means their greatest track, while 808 State‘s ‘Cübik’ may well be their finest hour (although it’s not aging well).

Kukl, the ’80s band in which Björk was vocalist, is described by Wikipedia as an ‘anarcho-punk’ group, but if ‘Dismembered’ is typical of their music, it’s much too tame for an epithet like that; regardless, it’s pretty enjoyable stuff, the seed of what would become The Sugarcubes (conspicuously absent from the programme). and there’s plenty of Björk’s solo music too; the glorious ‘Hyperballad’ (her most remixed song) opens the programme, and there are two tracks from her superlative album Medúlla, released a couple of months earlier that year, performed live at Maida Vale; they’re remarkable versions of the songs—an Inuit choir, a bell orchestra and a throat singer are all involved—and while ‘Who Is It?’ was included on one of the CD singles of that song, as far as i know ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’ has not yet found its way onto an official release.

For the rest, despite the presence of one or two distinctly damp squibs (Kid 606‘s ‘Sugarcoated’ is a definite “must try harder” effort, and DAF‘s ‘Sato Sato’ quickly palls), the programme is an enthralling listen, and goes a long way to elaborate the more unconventional sounds and textures that have become ubiquitous in Björk’s output from Vespertine onwards. Read more

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10 years on: Radiohead – Kid A

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You have to work at albums like Kid A. You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millenial atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles […] might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be sixteen. […] Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.

When populist scribbler Nick Hornby wrote those words in an article for the October 2000 issue of The New Yorker, he didn’t just fail to hit the nail on the head, he demonstrated he had no idea there was even a nail there. It’s sad that Kid A should have elicited such a superficial, æsthetically decrepit view, but Hornby’s was not a lone voice; assorted critics—and, no doubt, fans too—found themselves discombobulated by this album, and of course, anger and rejection so easily follow from incomprehension in simpler minds. However, in mentioning a teenage aspect, Hornby, without meaning to, actually got something right: Kid A, released 10 years ago this week, is Radiohead‘s “puberty album”, marking their musical transition from adolescence to adulthood. Hornby’s response is no different from the all-too-common parental reaction to this process, characterised by degrees of irritation and fury at how much their loved one has changed. In fact, “changed” doesn’t quite cover it; Radiohead’s remarkable progression from OK Computer, three years earlier, brings to mind the exclamation of shock from Bottom’s companion’s in Act III of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “bless thee! thou art translated!” Read more

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