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Not fade away

01/12/2001 -  to 14 January 2001

Alfred Schnittke: Piano Sonata No. 1, Piano Sonata No. 2
Boris Berman (piano)

Alfred Schnittke: Violin Concerto No. 4, Symphony No. 1
Gidon Kremer (violin), Daniel Hope (violin), Simon Mulligan (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for mixed choir
BBC Singers Stephen Cleobury (conductor)

Alfred Schnittke: Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragment (world premiere), Symphony No. 4
Clio Gould (violin), Joan Atherton (violin), John Constable (piano/harpsichord), Andrew Watts (counter-tenor), Robert Johnston (tenor)
London Sinfonietta, BBC Singers Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Alfred Schnittke: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8, Concerto Grosso No. 2, (K)ein Sommernachtstraum
Gidon Kremer (violin), Marta Sudraba (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra Eli Klas (conductor)

Alfred Schnittke: Cello Concerto No. 2, Concerto Grosso No. 4/Symphony No. 5
Torlief Tedéen (cello), Yuri Torchinsky (violin), Jennifer Galloway (oboe), Darius Battiwalla (harpsichord)
BBC Philharmonic Vassily Sinaisky (conductor)

Alfred Schnittke: Symphony No. 3, Faust Cantata (Seid nüchtern und wachet)
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Watts (counter-tenor), Justin Lavender (tenor), David Wilson -Johnson (bass-baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra BBC Symphony Chorus Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

Alfred Schnittke, of German-Jewish and Lithuanian descent, was born in the Republic of the Volga Germans in the Soviet Union in 1934. He came to prominence in the last years of Shostakovitch's life, and the bulk of his prolific oeuvre was written in the time between Shostakovitch's death and the end of the Soviet Union. Schnittke worked in the same formally German tradition of symphonies and chamber music as Shostakovitch, but unlike him he never occupied an official position in Soviet music, and his work is unambiguously personal and alienated. Often, only the form (particularly the concerto that sets soloist against orchestra and the concerto grosso that does the same with a small ensemble and the whole orchestra) and gallows humour provide a defence against a view of the abyss, or the devil.

It may be a sad irony of fate that Schnittke's health failed from his first stroke in 1985, and during the comparatively open years of glasnost and the end of the Soviet Union, his work reflected his physical constraints in its often extreme austerity and bleakness. But this weekend, this year's BBC Symphony Orchestra "composer weekend", showed how much all his compositions looked outside themselves to struggle against external physical and spiritual constraints. Sometimes the physical constraints are simply those of the instruments: the intense but impersonal Piano Sonata No. 1, lucidly played by Boris Berman moves its sparse lines ultimately to the ends of the keyboard, so that the sound of the hammers at the top and the noisy overtones of the low strings seem to take over from the conventional harmony.

More often, the struggle is against both the physical sound of music and its external denotations. In the showpiece Symphony No. 1, the symphonic form itself is in conflict with a succession of dramas -- the players entering playing, a riot that invokes a police siren, a violinist and pianist who enter and start to play a completely separate work before being drowned out by the orchestra -- and also with musical quotations that try and fail to impose a conventional direction on the work. On the surface there is a lot of humour here. But the symphony lasts almost an hour and a quarter, and it starts all over again at the end in a way that suggests a general and endless increase of oppressive chaos. Martyn Brabbins conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the air of a man in profound despair.

In the Violin Concerto No. 4, played in the first part of the same concert by Gidon Kremer, the violinist at first tries to speak in a different voice above the lyrical orchestral part, but is overwhelmed from time to time so that he can only finger the notes, and can't put the bow to the strings. It is never remotely explicit what the forces that threaten the violin's voice are, and of course a reductive metaphor that makes everything a contest between Soviet oppression and the individual greatly undervalues the music. But it is interesting that Kremer commissioned Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 1 in 1977, and insisted that he include a keyboard part that Schnittke could play himself in order to be able travel to Austria with Kremer's ensemble.

The Concerto for mixed voices, performed by the BBC singers in a late-night concert in St Giles', represents an alternative musical response to the vicissitudes of the sublunar world, a serene spiritual detachment. It is a setting for unaccompanied choir of a set of ninth-century Armenian religious poems that seem to prefigure the baroque in the way they reflect on humanity in all its corporeality and its distance from the divine. Schnittke, the son of a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic by adult choice, sets the text in ways which avoid specifically religious musical associations in favour of a general sense of personal spirituality that is open to the world without being chained to it.

You could say that Schnittke shares Mahler's pantheistic spirituality, at least from time to time, and the Symphony No. 4, from the year before the concerto for mixed voices is similarly serene. In the same concert, a fragment of a work commissioned by the London Sinfonietta but never completed, a cantata for counter tenor and orchestra, depicts the vanity of the world and, apparently, a final state of detachment.

But other works suggest that Schnittke had a much more acerbic view of his German musical background. (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, a programme piece commissioned for Salzburg, could have inspired Danny Elfman with its disrupted but intermittently charming Weill-like dances. More substantially, the third symphony, commissioned for Leipzig, is an apparently neurotic survey of the anxieties of German influence, full of quotations that, as in Symphony No. 1, try to force a specious coherence onto chaos. The final work of the weekend, the Faust cantata, carried so many layers of irony it was explosive. It is a parody of a gospel passion in form, to a mediaeval text that Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus Adrian Leverkuhn (a synthesis of Schoenberg and Nietzsche) planned to use as the basis of an opera. Schnittke starts with a tenor quasi-Evangelist, a bass baritone Faustus and a chorus that provides general comments and also plays the role of Faust's fellow-students who he summons for a last meal before his death. A counter-tenor sings some of the text that concerns the devil, but the centre of the work is a wild tango, sung amplified by a mezzo, which narrates Faust's actual death and damnation in gory detail and has more to do with German rock of a certain age -- Faust, even -- than with Bach. Susan Bickley gave a stunning, and truly scary, performance of the mezzo part, and Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed that they are getting on very well already.

H.E. Elsom



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