The many styles of Alfred Schnittke explored in authentic performances.
ALFRED SCHNITTKE: Works for Violin and Piano = Sonata No. 1—Sonata No. 2 ‘Quasi una Sonata’; Sonata No. 3; Suite in the Old Style; Congratulatory Rondo; Stille Nacht; Polka – Roman Mints, violin/Katya Apekisheva, p./ Andrey Doynikov & Dmitri Vlassik, percussion/Olga Martynova, harpsichord – Quartz QTZ2116 (2 CDs), 47:25, 41:30 (5/6/16) ****:
The music on this 2-CD set of music by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) displays the multiplicity of styles and musical techniques of this postmodern Russian composer. The serial style of the First Violin Sonata; the polystylist Second Violin Sonata; the near-death late Violin Sonata No. 3; the film music of the Suite in the Old Style and the stylized distortions of the Congratulatory Rondo, Stille Nacht and Polka. Schnittke is the most important Russian composer in the late half of the 20th century. He followed Shostakovich in the trials of being a musician in an era of Soviet totalitarianism. His musical heritage—Russian, Jewish and Austro-German, physical struggles (two strokes), changing musical influences (from serialism to neo-Romanticism) made him a composer whose music is filled with the imagery and emotion of constant variation, often from one minute to the next.
The Violin Sonata No. 1 (1964) was written under the influence of 12-tone serialism which Schnittke learned in his two-year stay in Vienna from 1946-8, when he started his musical career at the tender age of 12. But it’s not music that is fiendishly difficult—more akin to Berg’s Violin Concerto which used atonality but sounded tonal. Characteristically, Schnittke juxtaposes acerbic melodies, irreverent humor, frenzied expression and a nobly-introverted chorale in the form of a passacaglia (in the third movement). The sarcastically ebullient finale satirizes the famous Spanish-Mexican song, La Cucaracha, while distorting themes from earlier movements. There’s nothing boring about this early piece.
The Second Violin Sonata ‘Quasi una Sonata’ sounds more radical, although there’s no use of serialism. The work is saturated with incessant stark piano chords, pauses (Schnittke refers to this effect as “screaming silence”), and dissonances from the violin. What follows is a combination of aleatory (chance), tonal and atonal, with references to Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms. The composer called it “a report on the impossibility of a sonata in the form of a sonata.” It is an emotionally dark work and the most difficult for this listener to grasp.
Schnittke wrote the late Sonata for Violin No. 3 (1994) after experiencing several strokes. He was partially paralyzed and composition was an emotional and physical effort of great difficulty. The form is the Baroque ‘sonata da chiesa’ (slow-fast-slow-fast) and the texture is spare and clear. The first movement is acerbic and dissonant, the Allegro is a grim dance, the Adagio is painfully and profoundly lyrical and the finale is a quiet yearning for relief.
The remaining music on this CD comes from the over 60 film scores Schnittke wrote as well as his polystylistic period. The delightful Suite in Old Style is an arrangement for viola d’amore, harpsichord and percussion. The arrangement adds punch to the movements: Pastorale, Ballet, Minute, Fugue and Pantomine. Stille Nacht (1978) was a Christmas greeting for violinist Gidon Kremer, but this detuned version might give the listener the creeps. Of it Schnittke said, “I set down a beautiful chord on paper—and suddenly it rusts.” Polka (1980) for solo violin is quirkily distorted, while Gratulationsrondo (1974) is a light-hearted take on Mozart, a gift for violinist Rostislav Dubinsky, the founder and first violin of the Borodin Quartet.
Russian violinist Roman Mints and the other musicians are superb and the recording is forward and clear. Mints, who lived in the times of Schnittke, muses, “…for me, this (Schnittke’s) music is precisely about us, about that life, those pains, those joys about the things you couldn’t say out loud but which you could whisper in the ear, and so on.”
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