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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Concerto grosso No.1, version for flute, oboe, harpsichord, prepared piano and string orchestra (1988) [27.13]
Symphony No.9 (reconstruction by Alexander Raskatov) (1997) [33.19]
Sharon Bezaly (flute); Christopher Cowie (oboe)
Cape Philharmonic Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. December 2008, Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium, Cape Town
World première recording Concerto grosso No.1 in this version
BIS-CD-1727 [61:24]

Experience Classicsonline

Schnittke was a leading Soviet composer in the post-Shostakovich generation. His father was of German-Jewish extraction from the Baltic area, while his mother was a Volga German of Catholic background. From 1945 to 1948 the young boy Schnittke lived in Vienna where he studied piano and heard much classical music. Between 1953 and 1961 he studied at the Moscow Conservatoire, after which his work was focussed upon writing music for films, producing scores for more than sixty of them. During the 1960s he mastering various idioms of modern music, producing a colourful and expressive synthesis of avant-garde and retrospection, and the Baroque features heavily in his musical thought, sometimes in the nomenclature of his works (Concerti grossi or movements such as Toccata or Preludio).

His first (of six) Concerto grosso dates from 1977 and is in a six-movement mix of styles. Originally for two violins, prepared piano and strings, this version (made in 1988) is for flute, oboe, harpsichord, prepared piano and strings, and this is its first recording. The concertino group of soloists - some staggeringly demanding playing impressively brought off by Sharon Bezaly and Christopher Cowie - is set in colourful contrast against the body of strings in ripieno. The music will grow on you with any luck; there is much highly attractive music here - the Toccata and Rondo in particular. Schnittke has many Stravinsky neo-classical moments, and as well as dipping into Russian folksong and Corelli, there is also (in his own words) ‘a favourite tango of my grandmother’s, played by my great-grandmother’ on the harpsichord in the middle of track five. Schnittke was well aware of the necessity to appeal to his listeners rather than put them off; ‘One of my life’s goals is to overcome the gap between serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so’.

He died in 1998, having suffered a stroke four years earlier, which left him speechless and unable to use his right hand. The Ninth Symphony was his last - yet another death warrant served by the number nine to symphonists - and various attempts to decipher his manuscript proved unsatisfactory, beginning with Rozhdestvensky whose version in 1998 was disapproved of by the composer himself before he died a couple of months later. Another version was attempted by Nikolai Korndorf but he died in 2001 with much of it incomplete. Alexander Raskatov completed the difficult task in 2006. It was premiered in Dresden the following year, and would appear to be more accurate, though yet another has since appeared in 2008 by Andrei Boreyko with further alterations. Raskatov’s is used here. Schnittke is less poly-stylistic in the Ninth Symphony, and is on the search for a new musical language. The result is both exciting and invigorating, underscoring the sense of loss shortly after he wrote it. One can only speculate what twists and turns his music would take had he lived.

Owain Arwel Hughes and the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra serve the music well in the generous acoustic provided by the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium in Cape Town, a far cry from the City Hall’s bathroom resonance where I frequently used to guest-conduct the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra. The Schnittke discography is currently extensive, and though he became flavour of the month during the 1980s and 1990s, it proved far too late for him to enjoy such fame. The more his last years were blighted by strokes so he withdrew further into privacy and became very reclusive. Fortunately for us, though his speech was stilled, his creativity was not.

Christopher Fifield









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