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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Symphonic Prelude (1993) [17:25]
Symphony no.8 (1994) [35:42]
(I. Moderato [8:35]; II. Allegro moderato [4:19]; III. Lento [15:59]; IV. Allegro moderato [5:07]; V. Lento [1:42])
For Liverpool (1994) [12:32]
Norrköping Symphony Orchestra/Lü Jia
Recorded in May 2001 (Symphonic Prelude), May 2002 (Symphony no.8), and September 2000 (For Liverpool) at the Louis de Geer Concert Hall, Norrköping, Sweden
BIS-CD-1217 [66:34]

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Schnittke's Symphonic Prelude of 1993 begins with a confident, almost civic theme. As the trumpets blaze, the thought comes to mind that we are in Fanfare for the Common Man, or Shostakovich Festive Overture territory. This impression is reinforced when the strings set off on what, for one moment, sounds as if it might develop into a fugue.

Of course, being Schnittke, all these notions are way off beam - or, perhaps more accurately, are placed deliberately in our minds by the composer precisely in order to subvert them. After its first complacent statement, the theme is gradually 'deconstructed', its tight intervals eventually being spread out over several octaves by the violins before the black final chord. There are similar processes at work here to those of (K)ein Sommernachtstraum of 1985; but where the earlier piece is fundamentally playful, this prelude is utterly dark, nightmarish even. It is also a brilliant example of Schnittke's highly personal handling of the orchestra, with its 'limitless' possibilities (to quote the composer).

Symphony no.8, premiered in 1994 by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky, develops many of these same ideas, starting with the striking trombone solo that commences the work, ranging over more than three octaves. At the heart of the five-part structure is the central Lento, a slow movement which occupies getting on for half of the total length of the symphony.

All through the work, there are echoes of Schnittke's great symphonic predecessor and compatriot Dmitri Shostakovich. This may not seem surprising; yet that influence is rarely felt as clearly elsewhere in Schnittke's music. Such elements as the piccolo solo towards the end of the first movement, the achingly expressive violin lines in the Lento, or the little imitative phrases in woodwind in the same movement, underline this connection. On the other hand, the thick tonal clusters which blur the expressive lines are entirely Schnittke's own. Indeed, the final gesture of the symphony is a radiantly soft cluster, consisting of all the notes of a C major scale piled on top of each other and stretching upwards over more than three octaves; a stunning conclusion, and reminiscent of the ending of Arvo Pärt's Credo. This symphony is a remarkable piece; gloomy, yes, but you don't go to Schnittke if you're after a barrel of laughs (usually!).

The disc closes with For Liverpool, composed, as you might imagine, for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave its first performance in 1995 under their chief conductor at the time, Libor Pešek. Beginning with a brass chorale, and an arching phrase for the horns, it features a theme whose rhythm corresponds to the words "For Liverpool". Schnittke also employs electric guitar and bass guitar - used, maybe, as an oblique tribute to certain other Liverpudlian musicians? Who knows; perhaps I'm being fanciful, as these instruments do crop up elsewhere in his music, and here sometimes have a continuo-like function.

The Norrköping players make a superb job of playing all this terrifyingly original and disturbing music. It's not just that they are equal to its huge technical challenges; they project it with imagination and powerful characterisation, and for this, the conductor Lü Jia - who is I believe Chinese by birth, but don't quote me please! - must take an enormous amount of credit. By any standards, this is an outstanding disc.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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