The Manchester Classical
Gallery is a Russian record label that
is beginning to engender considerable
interest with their enterprising releases
of unusual or intriguing repertoire.
Alfred Schnittke was
born in 1934 in the town of Engels,
on the Volga River, in the then Soviet
Union. Schnittke’s father was born in
Frankfurt to a Jewish family of Russian
origin who had moved to the USSR in
1926. His mother was a Volga-German
born in Russia. The young Schnittke
began his musical education in 1946
in Vienna where his father who was a
journalist and translator had been posted.
Schnittke’s family moved to Moscow in
1948 where he studied the piano and
received a diploma in choral conducting.
Between the years 1953 and 1958 he studied
counterpoint and composition with Yevgeny
Golubev and instrumentation with Nikolai
Rakov at the Moscow Conservatory. Schnittke
completed the postgraduate course in
composition in 1961 and joined the Union
of Composers the same year. He was particularly
encouraged by Phillip Herschkowitz,
a Webern disciple, who resided in the
Soviet capital. In 1962 Schnittke was
appointed to the teaching staff at the
Moscow Conservatory, a post which he
held until 1972. Thereafter he supported
himself chiefly as a composer of film
scores and by 1984 he had scored more
than sixty films.
Noted, above all, for his hallmark ‘polystylistic’
idiom, Schnittke composed in a wide
range of genres and styles. His Concerto
Grosso No. 1 from 1977 was one of
the first works to bring his name to
prominence. It was popularised by Gidon
Kremer, a tireless champion of his music.
Many of Schnittke’s works have been
inspired by Kremer and other prominent
performers, including Yuri Bashmet,
Natalia Gutman, Gennady Rozhdestvensky
and Mstislav Rostropovich. He first
travelled to America in 1988 for the
‘Making Music Together’ Festival in
Boston and the American premiere of
Symphony No. 1 performed by the
Boston Symphony Orchestra. He returned
to America in 1991 and also in 1994.
nine symphonies, six concerti grossi,
four violin concertos, two cello concertos,
concertos for piano and a triple concerto
for violin, viola and cello, four string
quartets and much other chamber music,
ballet scores, choral and vocal works.
His first opera, Life with an Idiot,
was premiered in Amsterdam in 1992.
Schnittke’s music gained increasing
exposure and international acclaim.
Schnittke had been the recipient of
numerous awards and honours, including
Austrian State Prize in 1991, Japan’s
Imperial Prize in 1992, and, most recently
the Slava-Gloria-Prize in Moscow in
June 1998. Arguably Schnittke’s music
had attracted a cult-following and it
had been celebrated with retrospectives
and major festivals worldwide in addition
to numerous recordings.
In 1985, Schnittke
suffered the first of a series of serious
strokes. Despite his frailty he suffered
no loss of creative imagination, individuality
or productivity. Beginning in 1990,
he moved to Hamburg, maintaining dual
German-Russian citizenship. He died,
after suffering another stroke in 1998
in Hamburg, Germany.
interest in some circles about Schnittke’s
music many today still regard his music
with suspicion and apprehension. Only
this week I attended a meeting of a
Music Society where a lengthy orchestral
work by Schnittke was played. ‘Difficult’,
‘unpleasant’, ‘awful’, ‘torturous’ and
‘discordant’ are all words that I heard
used by these experienced serious music
listeners to describe their feelings
about Schnittke’s score. On the other
hand at a recent recital by the Navarra
String Quartet the leader Xander Van
Vliet gave the audience the choice between
a performance of Shostakovich’s sixth
quartet or Schnittke’s third quartet.
Perhaps surprisingly the audience chose
to hear the Schnittke. Placed in between
well known string quartets by Haydn
and Beethoven, the Schnittke went down
well with most people. I’m sure that
this approach of providing vastly contrasting
programmes is the best way to introduce
more ‘difficult music’ to mass audiences.
his Concerto Grosso No. 1 in
1977. The work received its premiere
that same year, with the Leningrad Chamber
Orchestra under Eri Klas. The soloists
for the occasion were violinists Gidon
Kremer and Tatiana Gridenko with Yuri
Smirnov on the two keyboard instruments.
The predominant style of this composition
seems to be one of pastiche. The composer
has described the work as "a
play of three spheres, the Baroque,
the Modern and the banal".
These seemingly disparate elements and
styles, encompassing over two centuries,
are fused into one cohesive structure
of marvellously unified vision; this
is all achieved with "extraordinary
virtuosity, wit and flair"
(New York Times). Cast in six movements
the Concerto Grosso No.1 sees
Schnittke employ three centuries of
classical and popular musical styles
that collide to humorous and chilling
In this performance of the Concerto
Grosso No. 1 Arcady Shteinlukht
conducts with well chosen tempos and
obtains spruce accompaniment from his
St. Petersburg Mozarteum Chamber Orchestra.
The featured players, violinists Victor
Kuleshov and Ilia Ioff, violin and Julia
Lev on the keyboards are in impressive
form responding enthusiastically to
the demanding score.
The Concerto for Piano and Strings
was composed by Schnittke in 1979
and performed for the first time the
same year. The score is in one continuous
movement written in a difficult form,
combining the features of a sonata,
sonata cycle and reversed variations.
Little seems to have been written about
the Concerto for Piano and Strings.
However the Schnittke scholars V. Kholopova
and Ye. Chigareva have provided a description
of this composition, "It resembles
the harmonious world of the past as
perceived by the artist of the 20th
century. The wish to rely on it is one
of the illusions that draws us away
from the goals of our time. The nostalgia
for the classical ideal does not bring
us closer to the solution of the problem.
A person should not seek the help from
within. He can rely only on himself.
On the development of his inner spiritual
world, on working out the inner credo;
only this way can a person assert his
individuality." A rather
complicated narrative, I’m sure readers
The Concerto for
Piano and Strings is performed with
spirited advocacy. The St. Petersburg
players are strong and fiery bringing
life and energy to the score. Enhanced
by panache and perception pianist Veronica
Reznikovskaya plays with a marvellously
The concise and reasonably
informative booklet notes suffer slightly
from the English translation from the
Russian. The recorded sound is very
Those looking for a
starting place to discover the orchestral
music of Schnittke need look no further.
Excellent performances of fascinating
but challenging scores.