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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Symphony No. 3 (1981) [52.16]
Tobias Berndt (organ), Heike Gneiting (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. July 2014, Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks, RBB, Berlin; October 2014 Seifert organ, St. Matthias-Kirche, Schöneberg, Berlin, Germany
PENTATONE SACD PTC5186485 [52.16]

This new recording of Schnittke's Symphony No. 3 was made in the studio and is conducted by the Berlin-based and Moscow-born Vladimir Jurowski. There are few orchestras that play twentieth-century music as well as the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin. They have performed in a number of excellent recordings including the acclaimed set of the complete Hans Werner Henze symphonies and other orchestral works on Wergo (review review).

It is difficult to claim a single compositional voice from Alfred Schnittke as the multi-faceted nature of his music ranges from Arvo Pärt-like spirituality to twelve-tone or ‘serial’ to neo-classical and to what he described as ‘polystylism’ an eclectic approach of varying often contradictory styles. Born to a Jewish father and German Roman Catholic mother, but raised in the Soviet Union, Schnittke was one of the foremost composers of the post-Shostakovich generation. He lived under the strictures of Soviet cultural policy and suffered from disapproval by the authorities for being too Western-European influenced. The increasing opportunities that Glasnost presented in the USSR assisted Schnittke’s emergence as a composer of international note. He became highly fashionable for a time, although, it is rare to see his music programmed today. A prolific composer, he has been especially effective in the field of unaccompanied sacred choral with his Konzert für Chor (Concerto for Choir) considered by many to be a choral masterpiece.

Schnittke wrote eight symphonies leaving a ninth unfinished together with an early symphony No. ‘0’ which he didn’t acknowledge. They have all been reocrded by Bis in their Schnittke Edition (BIS-CD-1767/68). By the time of writing the complex Symphony No. 3 in 1981 Schnittke had some years earlier lost his rather short-lived fascination for the Western avant-garde and was following a ‘polystylism’ approach of composition. The Symphony No. 3 a commission for the inauguration of the new Gewandhaus was premièred the same year by the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester under Kurt Masur. Owing to this provenance the work is sometimes referred to as the ‘Leipzig’ Symphony. In the Soviet Union the first performance was given in 1982 by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky who recorded it in 1984 for Melodiya (SUCD 10 00064). It’s a massive work cast in four movements and orchestrated in the manner of Richard Strauss and Mahler requiring one hundred and eleven orchestral players.

It is not always easy to make sense of its construction. Schnittke incorporates paraphrases from Austro/German music and uses quasi-quotes rather than literal quotes from a line-up of twenty-eight Austro/German composers from initials of their names ‘monograms’ and also a small number of words emblematic to the commission such as ‘Leipzig’ and ‘Thomaskirche’ all woven into the writing. These quasi-quotes lie hidden and I certainly couldn’t detect any particular themes from any composer except in the opening of the first movement which evokes the drone of the Prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545.

There's a formidable visceral energy about the writing and this coupled with intense engagement from Jurowski’s Berlin players creates a wide range of sonorities performed brilliantly and with real élan. The concentration given to the opening movement Moderato is remarkable. That Rheingold theme puts in an appearance and the dynamics swell gradually in menace from an almost inaudible pianissimo to a tremendous climax that recurs three times. Marked Allegro the opening of the second movement is vibrant and fresh - almost playful, dance-like, delicate and certainly charming. Several mood-changes occur suddenly and as the drama increases the writing becomes darker and more serious in tone. Especially memorable are the sinister feel to the harpsichord part, a haunted Straussian waltz and the electric guitar breaks. There is also what sounds like a quotation from the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier - Book 1 (9.50-10.01) and in the Coda a direct quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C, K545. This eventually fades away on a cheerless note to nothing. Movement three, an Allegro pesante which extensively employs varied use of the monogram ‘das Böse’(The Evil), opens with ominously dark, weighty indeed fearsome music. This could easily represent the heavy tread of the Giants and the Dragon leitmotifs in Das Rheingold. The electric guitar wails and screams away repetitively and as the orchestral weight swells at point 6.53, clangorous, menacing and martially percussive, the loudness becomes almost unbearable. At nineteen minutes the lengthy Finale - Adagio contains a series of variations based on all twenty-eight composer monograms transformed into twelve-note rows and several themes. The prevailing mood is that of an uneasy calm with a curious sense of exhaustion evoking a bleak inhospitable wasteland, an aural picture I find so characteristic of Shostakovich. In a central passage the atmosphere is broken gradually as the weight and intensity increases for a fire-breathing outburst at 11.55-12.43. The uneasy and rather austere quietness returns and gradually decays to a silence in a way reminiscent of the haunting, rather otherworldly temperament of Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration.

Recorded at the Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks of RBB with the Seifert organ at St. Matthias-Kirche, Schöneberg added later the sound quality of this SACD played on my standard player is out of the top drawer. A minor grumble is that fifty-two minutes is rather short measure and it’s hard to fathom why an additional work wasn’t placed on the release. Nevertheless the fascination of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 3 and the quality of this sublime performance from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Vladimir Jurowski combine for a compelling aural experience. A release to entice the reasonably adventurous, this will undoubtedly be one of my 2015 Records of the Year.

Michael Cookson