Notes on Schnittke

Walt Mundkowsky

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

I.

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke died in Hamburg August 3, 1998, silenced by the last in a series of debilitating strokes that began 13 years earlier. His remarkable prominence can be gauged from an unlikely source; Billboard, the pop-oriented industry bible, devoted a lengthy column (August 22, 1998) to his life. Schnittke’s early wrangles with Soviet authorities and his sour pranks (the two mid-’60s Violin Sonatas, or his infamous cadenzas for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto) made him the natural heir to Shostakovich, and gave new listeners a point of entry. As with Shostakovich, Schnittke’s music is more readily grasped than decoded, and stands aloof from Western fads. The early ’90s saw an explosion of Schnittke recordings, as the BIS complete edition got underway and important Melodiya items reached us. Labels large and small (notably Chandos these days) have joined in, pushing the CD total over 100.

Schnittke’s announced “polystylism” (the shotgun marriage of incongruous musics) seems less an invention than a fact of life. He typifies the man between cultures — born in 1934 in the Volga German Autonomous Soviet Republic, to a Latvian-Jewish journalist from Frankfurt and his Volga-German Catholic wife. Even the family name conspires; in German, Schnitt can mean cutting, as in film editing. Basic reference points are easily traced to direct experience. The sound of Vienna (Haydn-Mozart-Schubert, and later Mahler-Berg) is never far away. The formative years Schnittke spent there (1946-48) were crucial to his development. His interest in Serial procedure (never important to Shostakovich) no doubt derived from studies with Philip Herschkovitz, a Webern admirer. And some have glimpsed Ives in the collage patterns (an effort like the slapstick Concerto Grosso No. 1 [1977], though, runs nearer Spike Jones). Schnittke’s 60-odd film scores (a financial necessity) probably loom larger.

Even for an artist of Schnittke’s cultivation and juggling skill, this approach contains traps. The result may lack both roots and center, and remain arresting only as long as one is mystified or outraged by the frequent shifts. (The Judgment-Day funhouse that is the First Symphony [1972] has little staying power.) And picking through the past (Lassus here, Bruckner there) may put the composer outside musical history, and by implication superior to it. (As he progressed, Schnittke employed the found material with more varied intent, and closed the gap between quotation and self-made pastiche.) “I see no conflict in being both serious and comic in the same piece,” he said. “In fact, I cannot have one without the other.” This ardent but straying devotee is drawn to Schnittke only when the sense of occasion shatters the typical hall of mirrors. If I hear certain of his chamber works as more refined in craft and specific in impact than the rest of his output… well, I think that of many composers.

II.

The Piano Quintet marked a great personal advance; predictably, its birth was long and difficult (1972-76). Schnittke wanted to honor his recently deceased mother, but got stuck after the opening movement. (He turned the discarded sketches into a gaudy Requiem for a stage production of Schiller’s Don Carlos. The eventual solution was a quick-stepping waltz around the familiar B-A-C-H motif, which is buffeted and transformed by outside forces. Successive slow movements follow (Andante and Lento), moving increasingly inward in agonizing steps. The finale provides miraculous relief. Over the piano’s lilting music-box theme (a Passacaglia with 14 repetitions), the quartet throws out shards of earlier material. The whole is daringly uniform in dynamics, rhythm, and texture. Its disturbing emotional punch may obscure the formal ingenuity, especially Schnittke’s knack for disguising his simple building blocks through altered contexts.

To Western ears, Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 1 (1966) was a fairly routine 12-tone essay, however much it affronted the Soviet party hacks. He didn’t write another until 1980, when the elegiac spirit again beckoned. The subject was Larissa Shepitko, a talented filmmaker and close friend who had died in a car crash the previous year. No. 2’s four-movement plan may seem standard, but its major source (much reworked) is the Orthodox rites of the 16th and 17th centuries — one more slap at the bureaucrats. Traditional requiems pay homage to the dead and console the living; Schnittke here does neither. The work forms an extended howl of rage. This is most evident in the waves of percussive string racket (from early Penderecki?), and the crosscut-saw chords that menace the chant recitative. But the gripping episodes of quiet — the entire piece holding its breath — bring only heightened tension, not repose. The defiant lack of conclusion (“closure” isn’t even on the horizon) makes this a memorial like no other.

The String Trio was part of the great outpouring that immediately preceded Schnittke’s near-fatal 1985 stroke. It belongs with the finest trios ever — Mozart’s K. 563, Beethoven’s Op. 9 threesome, Schoenberg’s Op. 45. (Each has a strong Viennese flavor.) The Alban Berg Society commissioned it, to observe the composer’s centenary. This isn’t a “funeral sentence” like the previous two (though Berg is central to Schnittke’s harmonic palette), but a potent exercise in remembrance. The main technical task of the Piano Quintet — how to lend repeated material a fresh spin — here reaches its apex. In two long movements (Moderato and Adagio), Schnittke perfects a kind of Musicus Interruptus. His usually subversive asides here redirect the emotional flow rather than undercut it (not unlike the rustic band’s appearance near the climax of Beethoven’s Ninth). A slow waltz refrain is the principal signpost; it passes a dozen times, in simple or elaborate settings. Each incident elicits a shock.

III.

SOME RECORDINGS

Piano Quintet: The Borodin Quartet and pianist Ludmila Berlinsky (Virgin, now import only) combine an iron grip on rhythms with expansive, gorgeous sounds. A deleted Sony entry led by Irina Schnittke (the composer’s wife) is a revelation — this is how the piano part should proceed. But the strings chaired by violinist Mark Lubotsky, another Schnittke veteran, aren’t ideally balanced. That leaves the field to the Moscow Quartet (Russian Disc), whom Schnittke applauded profusely. Their hair-raisingly exact ensemble and tonal blend emphasize the choral aspect, while Constantine Orbelian never inflates the piano’s rôle. The Muscovites remain their splendid selves on a new Finer Arts release, but partner Gary Graffman doesn’t command the idiom. Lev Natochenny’s opening 30-bar solo is strikingly languid and meandering (appearing invented as it goes along), but he strays into vehemence, and the Penderecki Quartet sound a touch ragged (Marquis).

String Quartet No. 2: Despite grayish sound, the Beethoven Quartet (long associated with Shostakovich) own this piece on disc. They are alert to tremors the others skate over, and bring profound understanding to the sacred chants. (Formerly on Mobile Fidelity, this studio taping is in a low-priced Vox Box.) No other outfit comes close, but several misfire intriguingly. The Kronos (Nonesuch) are decently prepared, but their pallid tones reduce Schnittke’s outrage to mere discomfort. Fellow avant-garde darlings, the Ardittis, seem ludicrously miscast (on Gramavision’s “Arditti Two”). They provide a run-through of the score (and are stunningly recorded by Max Wilcox), but haven’t a clue as to the expressive potential. Ace violist Tabea Zimmermann holds together an ad hoc group at the 1989 Lockenhaus Festival (on the Schnittke CD in Philips’ 10-disc Lockenhaus box). Ensemble is naturally approximate, but the musicians are fearless. Their ferocity and delight in the music conquer all.

String Trio: If this is clearly a masterwork, it has also received exceptional advocacy. For scalding intensity of thought and feeling, the Gidon Kremer-Zimmermann-Heinrich Schiff performance has few equals in the whole catalog. Done at Lockenhaus in 1987 (at a 10 a.m. church concert), it mandates purchase of the Philips set — if one can still find it. Schiff later confided in a Fanfare interview, “I can’t, I can’t talk of this. (…) If I think about playing it, I become weak.” Kremer joined with Yuri Bashmet and Rostropovich in a 1995 studio date for EMI (stupidly deleted over here a few months ago, it can still be had as an import). That dream team (in superb sound) produces dream results, with tones of orchestral size and complexity. But the Lockenhaus live event’s air of impassioned risk isn’t overshadowed.

Honorable mention in each case should go to the Tale Quartet on BIS. They introduced many of us to this music, which they play with care and commitment.