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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Symphony No.0 (1956-57) [40:34]
Nagasaki (1958) [36:09]
Hanneli Rupert (mezzo)
Cape Town Voice of the Nation (Nagasaki)
Cape Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. November 2006, Cape Town City Hall, South Africa
BIS BIS-CD-1647 [77:35]

The music on this CD can be summed up in one word, Shostakovich. This would be unfair however, as Schnittke, still a student at the Moscow Conservatory on completing his Symphony (now known as Symphony No.0), and following postgraduate courses a year later when composing Nagasaki, clearly avoids mere pastiche or slavish imitation. Schnittke believed in ‘ideas of the time’ which existed in a kind of collective consciousness which could and should be shared by composers. The Symphony was only performed once during his lifetime, by the conservatory orchestra and with Dmitri Shostakovich in the audience.

“There are long developments and long climaxes in my music not because I am imitating Shostakovich, but because I grew up in an atmosphere related to his music, and saturated with his ideas.” There are of course other influences in the Symphony, including some of the melodic style of Nikolai Myaskowski, who had been a teacher of Schnittke’s orchestration teacher Evgeny Golubev. This clear link to an elegant balance in both instrumentation and form springs from this heritage, but is also infused with other influences, one of the most apparent being that of Carl Orff, whose Carmina Burana Schnittke had heard in its first Soviet performance in this period. The lively mind of the young composer absorbed and re-interpreted the energies and effect of the music which impressed him most, and there is no teacher or musician alive who would blame him or any other student for so doing. Much like Shostakovich’s own student first symphony, Schnittke’s is a brilliant work, a feast of ideas both impressive and expressive, all rolling along on a carpet of the richest and most effective orchestration. If you couldn’t predict the road Schnittke’s work would ultimately follow from this piece alone, you would certainly come away with the sense that his career was safely assured. 

In the opinion of cellist and Schnittke expert Alexander Ivashkin, who has written the liner notes to this release, the oratorio Nagasaki (1958) remains “one of Schnittke’s most powerful compositions. In spite of many obvious elements taken from Orff’s style, Schnittke’s music speaks in its own language, which is a highly imaginative and original one.” Nagasaki calls for a very large orchestra as well as a choir and soloist and is in fact one of the largest orchestral settings in all of Schnittke’s music. On the recommendation of Shostakovich, the work was broadcast in 1959 on Moscow World Service Radio, but it had never received a public performance until November 2006, when it formed the main event at the first Cape Town International Summer Music Festival, performed by the musicians on this disc. Again, the influence of Shostakovich is strong, but Schnittke’s response to the subject made it “a very honest work” and one in which the composer was “absolutely sincere.” The work is highly dramatic, with the extended central movement On That Fateful Day without choir easily being as pictorial and expressively descriptive as those with. The finale, The Sun of Peace was part of a re-write by Schnittke, is another dramatic statement, but with a moving final apotheosis supported by weighty pedal-tones from the mighty Cape Town City Hall organ. 

Owain Arwel Hughes will be known to BIS followers for his highly acclaimed recordings of the orchestral music of Rachmaninov and Holmboe, but the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra makes its début on BIS with this release, and shows itself to be a highly skilled instrument. The choir is good too, though there are some wobbly voices in there which stand out a little too much at times. The recording is up to the usual excellent BIS standard, with rich sonics which embrace all of the detail of the orchestration without any strange perspectives. Schnittke collectors will want this release as a matter of course, and it provides valuable insights into the composer’s early work. Fans of Shostakovich should snap it up as well – they’re bound to love it! 

Dominy Clements 




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