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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Film Music Edition
Die Geschichte von einem unbekannten Schauspieler / The story of an unknown actor (Alexander Sarchi / Mosfilm 1976) [18:38]
Die Kommissarin / The Commissar (Alexander Askoldow / Mosfilm 1967/87) [47:26]      
Clowns und Kinder / Clowns and Children (Alexander Mitta, Mosfilm 1976) [8:57]
Der Walzer / The Waltz (Viktor Titow / Mosfilm 1969) [11:09]
Die Glasharmonika / The Glass Harmonica (Andrei Khrzhanovsky, 1968) [20:46]
Der Aufstieg / The Ascent (Larissa Schepitko / Mosfilm 1976) [14:15]    
Das Märchen der Wanderungen / The Fairytale of the Wanderings (Alexander Mitta, Mosfilm 1982/83) [44:55]
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (Alexander Sguridi / ZentrNaútschFilm, 1976) [24:03]         
Sport, Sport, Sport (Elem Klimow, Mosfilm 1970) [25:21]  
Die Abenteuer eines Zahnarztes / The adventures of a dentist (Elem Klimow, Mosfilm 1965) [24:36]
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Frank Strobel
rec. Jesus Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem, 2003-2005
CAPRICCIO C7196 [4 CDs: 280:23]

Alfred Schnittke’s film music is probably better known by reputation rather than as something familiar to listeners, though Frank Strobel’s work in this field has made some of this large archive of music more accessible in recent years. Schnittke wrote more than 60 film scores between 1961 and 1984, earning more in this way that was ever likely to be possible through his ‘serious’ work bearing in mind the difficulties he and other contemporary composers suffered in the USSR. Schnittke continued to write for film for much of his life, and was apparently by no means uncomfortable in being known as a film music composer.

Divorcing film music from the pictures and narratives for which they were written is rarely ideal, but Frank Strobel’s large scale project in fact complies with Schnittke’s wish that his film music should be brought to life in the concert hall, so what we have here are scores painstakingly gathered together and recorded in excellent audio rather than original soundtracks. There is of course a big difference between these polished recordings and the raw and distinctive character of the originals and I would hesitate to say which is ultimately preferable, but for the audio-only experiences these recordings are excellent.

This four disc box set is a re-release of single discs which originally had an SACD layer. Earlier editions have been covered on MusicWeb International: volume 1 (see review) and volume 2 (review). This set on standard stereo CDs is nicely presented and well documented, with notes on each film.

The Story of an Unknown Actor has some lovely nostalgic themes and a rather gentle orchestral sound, with plenty of quite lush string writing. The Commissar also opens quite sweetly, but darker undertones break through, the klezmer-style Wedding overrun with violence by a subsequent Attack. This score has more fingerprints of Schnittke’s style, with playfulness set surreally against unfeeling angularity and the heavy intensity of clustered chords. Orchestration is also more extensive, with a large percussion section and timbres such as dampened piano strings all adding impact and atmosphere to performance which also include some terrific folk-fiddling.

Clowns and Children has grand circus music of which Shostakovich might have been proud, the childishness and jollity always infected with a quasi-comic clumsiness and some minor-key melancholy. Reading about The Waltz conjures some strange ideas which include Johann Strauss as a character, his waltz theme being put through all kinds of torture before emerging triumphant. The Glass Harmonica is rather special, being a through-composed score which plays for the entire duration of a 19 minute cartoon. The instrument’s glassy sound is recreated with a celesta, harp and prepared piano, and there are all kinds of stylistic pastiche from Baroque to the strangest of modern effects using Theremin and other electronic instruments. It’s worth seeking out the disturbing original. The Ascent is a harrowing story of Soviet partisans during the darkest days of WWII. Schnittke’s oppressive score generates sound-textures as much as it does music in the first track, Sotnikov’s Death, and there is a chilling atmosphere throughout, with powerful and dispiriting climaxes.

The Fairytale of the Wanderings is a strange adventure, the tale of which is too complicated to summarise. This was a significant project for Schnittke, and his collaboration with film-maker Alexander Mitta resulted in extensive and wide-ranging music of the highest calibre. The content is distinctively Schnittke, from the main theme and melodies both witty and beautiful to the sheer imagination and variety in the orchestration, all qualities which draw you in and keep you involved from start to finish. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is Rudyard Kipling’s famous Mongoose from the Jungle Book, and the wide-screen and large-scale production is reflected in Schnittke’s opulent and often more Western-sounding score. Grand, heroic gestures are there to inspire, while atmospheric scoring describes nocturnal scenes, the threat of the snakes, battle and ultimate triumph.

Sport, Sport, Sport is a satire on fitness, and Schnittke’s score is a “good humoured caricature of the ambitious movers.” This and numerous other films of this kind were banned by the Soviet authorities, and Schnittke rescued and recycled portions of these scores to make his Suite in old Style for violin and piano. This includes The Adventures of a Dentist, which is another satire, the moral of which in this case “is that he who stands out is soon cut down.” There are some terrific numbers in both of these scores, with Schnittke at his best when undermining his own distinctive themes through stylistic adaptation or distortion. There are portions which enter ‘classical sitcom’ territory, nods to Shostakovich in Jazz Suite mood, as well as an embracing of neo-classical nuance which sails close to Stravinsky, and moments which seem to satirise bloated versions of the kind of Western culture that revels in gold-leafed New Year celebratory crassness. There’s also a fantastic Charleston with saxophones and banjo and just so much to enjoy and so many ways of interpreting what Schnittke might be wanting to tell us: this is the kind of stuff which can keep you entertained and stimulated for a lifetime.

With an inevitable smoothing out of those rough edges that can charm and shock in those original film recordings, this is a collection very much worth acquiring. If you’ve been put off by Schnittke’s modernity in the past then this can be a way into understanding his musical language from a different angle. Having heard the technical virtuosity with which he solves the problems of applying music to the widest variety of imagery and narrative, one comes to appreciate even more the sheer facility and genius of this composer. These scores enhanced and heightened the effect of the films for which they were made, and to an equal extent the best of Schnittke’s concert music can enhance and heighten your experience of life. Go on, give it a try. It’s not like smoking – it won’t harm you, really.

Dominy Clements  


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