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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Symphony No.6 (1992) [36’41]
Concerto Grosso No.2 (1982) [32’29]
Tatiana Grindenko (violin)
Alexander Ivashkin (cello)
Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyansky
Recorded in Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, 24-26 December, 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10180 [69’22]


Some of Chandos’s Polyansky recordings of Russian music have been patchy in quality (I’m thinking here of a couple of his Prokofiev discs) but there is no doubting the success of his Schnittke series. This latest instalment, like most of the others, pairs a symphony with a concerto or concertante work, and this particular coupling works better than most.

The Sixth Symphony was commissioned by Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, and was given its first performance in Moscow on September 25, 1993. It is a brooding, intense work (even for this composer) and it’s no coincidence that Eric Roseberry’s excellent liner note mentions a link to composers such as Mahler, Shostakovich, Berg and Britten. The shadow of death looms large over the proceedings, but things never get maudlin. Instead, Schnittke seems to be railing at forces larger than all of us, but which we are powerless to act against or control. This is evident from the very opening, where a cataclysmic growl from the depths of the orchestra seems to come from the earth’s very core. In fact, the sound is all twelve notes of the chromatic scale piled up into a huge dissonance (Mahler 10?), which then dissolves into a chamber-like section of spare transparency. This juxtaposition of extremes is a familiar Schnittke thumbprint, and one he inherited from his predecessors and took to new heights. Such features recur throughout and one can readily hear examples of, for instance, the Mahlerian contrast of the serious with the trivial, as at 7’41 into track1, where deep clusters of low strings and brass are followed by a daintily scored section, almost childlike in its simplicity. This long first movement (almost as long as the other three together) has Shostakovich written all over it, but never descends into mere pastiche. The skill of Schnittke’s orchestration helps, as does Polyansky’s expertise in holding such disparate elements together. The ending of this first movement is almost frightening in its intensity, shrill blasts from the brass and deep clusters on strings sounding like some primordial animal writhing in pain.

The other three movements of this classically proportioned work follow on without a break, and though extremes of contrast (especially dynamics) are again present, they offer little by way of consolation. The players obviously relish the material, and the barbaric drumming that announces the finale has a wonderfully freewheeling energy and zest. Schnittke seems to have had difficulty with the ending of such a personal piece, and we get a sort of stammering halt in mid sentence. Roseberry likens this to ending with a gesture of ‘anxious questioning’, which is an apt description, and again one’s mind does back to other great death-haunted works of the 20th Century (Sibelius 4 sprang to mind). A gripping listen, but not for the faint hearted.

The elements that one loves or hates about Schnittke’s particular brand of poly-stylism are most evident in his series of Concerti Grossi. They are all quirky pieces, and No.2 is no exception. The sheer depth of feeling and truthfulness displayed in the Symphony is lacking here, but the work can be enjoyed on another level, mainly of Shostakovich-like wit and satire. It’s hard to get emotionally involved in music which constantly aims to disrupt and disorientate the listener, but one can enjoy the fun and games along the way. Schnittke plays a running joke in this piece by using as a motto theme the first phrase of ‘Silent Night’, which is played with and distorted to almost cruel proportions. He used this more than once, and it’s as if he is taking this icon of peace and tranquillity and telling us it’s all an illusion, particularly in the finale, where the famous tune gets the roughest ride. Add to this the usual chunks of Handel and Vivaldi that keep bursting forth unannounced, and you have a riotous mix that has, in Roseberry’s words, ‘a Mozartian flicker of moods ... and its own ambiguous smile’.

It’s all beautifully performed, with the virtuosic solo parts played with real relish by Schnittke authorities, Ivashkin and Grindenko. The recording, once again supervised by Polyansky himself, is better than previous discs, with excellent balance and wide-ranging depth. A must for Schnittke fans but the uninitiated be warned, it’s not an easy ride.

Tony Haywood

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