from long distance, Bis are to be complimented on their sleeve
designs of their Alfred Schnittke Edition. They are also to
be complimented on the high standard of each of the recordings
in the series; this new issue is no exception.
Quasi una sonata
started out life as ‘Violin Sonata No.2’, and it is the
1987 re-working for violin and chamber orchestra heard here.
After a dramatic opening G-minor chord which always reminds
me of the opening of Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’ the work
proceeds on a quest to unify brutal, atonal, aleatoric serialism
and moments of bald tonality. Schnittke was later able to call
this his first ‘polystylistic’ work, but taking it as a step
or more further than the direction already taken by Berg’s Violin
Concerto there seem to be relatively few problems with the B-A-C-H
motif, or any of the other interpolated shenanigans. Referring
to a recording which any self-respecting Schnittke fan will
have, the 1986 DG Gidon Kremer/Chamber Orchestra of Europe,
this BIS recording has greater refinement and depth in the sound,
an excellent orchestra in the Tapiola Sinfonietta, and as persuasive
a soloist in Ulf Wallin as any I can name, Kremer included.
Another work which
conveniently offers comparison with Gidon Kremer is Moz-Art
à la Haydn, which is part of a series of ‘Moz-Art’ works.
Each of these works borrows thematic material from Mozart’s
Pantalon und Columbine, a piece which now only exists
as a single surviving violin part. The theatrical elements of
an opening in darkness and the final ‘Farewell’ of the musicians
is obviously better served in a live performance, but all of
the grotesqueness of Schnittke’s often nightmarish transformations
of Mozart are superbly played here. Gidon Kremer and Tatiana
Grindenko, who are the dedicatees of this piece, are more shiveringly,
shimmeringly ‘in your face’ in terms of making a flautando
sound somehow almost aggressive. As violinists, you get
the impression that they could hold their own among a crowd
of hostile football supporters. Tero Latvala and Meri Englund
are no weaklings either, but their playing is more rounded and
conventional – they are playing more like Mozart, whereas Kremer
and Grindenko are really playing Schnittke. There is
a validity to either point of view, and there will always be
some who have found those astringent, fork-squeaking-on-dinner-plate
DG violins somewhat hard to take. This BIS recording, while
unfortunately missing out on a few of the fun theatrical moments
of stamping feet and whistling presented on the live DG version,
offers the ideal alternative.
The Suite in
the Old Style is another 1987 arrangement of a 1972 version
for violin and piano or harpsichord. This work holds none of
the polystylistic visions of Schnittke’s other orchestral works,
being a stylistically coherent pastiche with only occasional
forays into idiomatically foreign dissonance or rhythm – fleeting
moments which betray the work’s 20th century pedigree.
One can easily imagine how this would fit in as film music,
for which three of the movements where originally intended,
but the effortless way in which Schnittke creates such deceptively
easy-going music should not be too easily dismissed. The analogy
is passing by the cautiously lit rooms filled with drawings
at an art gallery in order to concentrate on the pretty colours
of the oil paintings. As an innocuous break in the programme
it is the kind of piece from which you can nip out and make
a cup of tea without feeling guilty about missing too much,
but never make the mistake of passing such work off as facile
– ask your local composer.
Having made your
tea, you can settle down once again to a final session of serious
mental struggle with the Concerto Grosso No.6. In fact
this music is demanding, but in its forthright compactness is
in no way impossibly difficult. The first movement is a weighty
concerto for the piano, with driving rhythmic polyphony and
loud dynamics. This is followed by one of Schnittke’s more desolate
utterances – a duo between the piano and an expressively impassioned
solo violin. The final Allegro vivace brings back the
entire ensemble in a colourful and nuance-filled feast which
includes morsels from the previous two movements.
To those who know
the BIS/Schnittke edition, this issue is self-recommending.
Ulf Wallin is a superb violinist, something which is essential
in these works. You can never have too much Schnittke, and with
such excellent performances and recordings as these you can
save yourself ever again needing to look out those scratchy
old Melodiya LPs and trying to work out what you are listening
to in cyrillic.