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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Concerto Grosso No.1 for Two Violins, Harpsichord, Prepared Piano and String Orchestra (1977) [27.52]
Concerto for Piano and Strings (1979) [24.10]
Victor Kuleshov, (violin)
Ilia Ioff, (violin)
Julia Lev (harpsichord and piano) (Concerto Grosso)
Veronica Reznikovskaya (piano) (Concerto for Piano)
St. Petersburg Mozarteum Chamber Orchestra/Arcady Shteinlukht
rec. 1995, Petersburg Recording Studio, St. Petersburg, Russia. DDD


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.

Schnittke composed 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.

Despite considerable 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 Recorded 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.

Schnittke completed 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 effect.

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 will agree.

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 controlled vitality.

The concise and reasonably informative booklet notes suffer slightly from the English translation from the Russian. The recorded sound is very acceptable.

Those looking for a starting place to discover the orchestral music of Schnittke need look no further. Excellent performances of fascinating but challenging scores.

Michael Cookson


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