Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Symphony No. 1 (1969-1972)
Paul Magi (violin), Victor Guseinov, Vladimir Pushkarev (trumpets),
Irina Lozben (flute), Rashit Galeyev (trombone), Sergei Soloviev (timpani),
Tatiana Fridliand (organ)
USSR Ministry of Culture State Symphony Orchestra/Gennady Rozhdestvensky
rec. 1987, venue not given MELODIYA MELCD1002321 [64:57]
As maiden symphonies go Alfred Schnittke’s First
is a hugely ambitious enterprise. Scored for a large orchestra –
including quadruple woodwinds, guitars, several saxophones and a number
of soloists - it can seem intimidating at first. Indeed, hearing the
clamour of bells at the start and the chaos that precedes the conductor’s
arrival on stage you may well be tempted to switch off. But stay your
hand, for this is a polystylistic masterpiece that assimilates a range
of genres and periods in a remarkably organic way. Not only that, Schnittke
uses his soloists and groups thereof in highly imaginative ways; all
of which makes for a glorious kaleidoscope of sound and colour.
The symphony was first performed in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) by the
Gorky Philharmonic led by the work’s dedicatee, Gennady Rozhdestvensky.
It was subsequently performed in the Estonian capital Tallinn, and received
its Moscow premiere in 1986. Rozhdestvensky’s Melodiya account,
recorded in 1987, was followed by one for Chandos in January 1988; I’ll
touch on the latter at the end of this review. Also, one mustn’t
forget Leif Segerstam and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, recorded
live in October 1992 as part of BIS’s complete Schnittke cycle;
Symphony No. 1 is available on BIS-577, with all ten packaged together
Segerstam - who I tend to find reticent and rather quirky - is comparatively
unbuttoned here. Still, he has a firm grip on all the work's competing
strands and his players seem transported by the occasion. As if that
weren't enough the enthusiastic audience adds a real buzz to the hall
and the BIS recording is big and ultra-vivid. This is the kind of immersive
– not to say proselytizing – performance the symphony needs
if it’s not to descend into rhetoric or a full-blown riot. Happily
Rozhdestvensky is just as committed in his Melodiya account, even if
the sound can't quite match Segerstam's for sheer immediacy and excitement.
That said, Melodiya did a pretty good job for Noddy,
as he’s affectionately known in Britain, although some of the
balances at the start of the first movement are a little disorientating.
Actually his opener is more sharply etched than Segerstam’s, which
is why that jazzy trumpet part seems so bright and bracing. Analytical
is a good description of Rozhdestvensky’s reading as a whole;
it’s clear-eyed – scrupulous even – but in its own
way it’s just as persuasive as Segerstam’s. When it comes
to certain details – that frankly pornographic trombone solo,
for instance – it’s clear that Segerstam’s performance
has even more wit and character.
In spite of my admiration for Segerstam I’m still profoundly impressed
by Rozhdestvensky's performance; the baroquerie that starts the
second movement - marked Allegretto - is stylishly done; also,
the gate-crashing brass will surely raise a smile or two. The more forensic
nature of this recording means that jammin’ violin and piano improvisations
are a toe-tapping delight. As for those polyrhythmic Ivesian parades
they are just as well caught by the Melodiya team; indeed, this couldn’t
be further from the agricultural-grade sound we came to associate with
this label in the 1960s and 1970s.
The third movement – Lento – may be quiet but it
has an abiding strangeness that puts me in mind of Mahler’s nachtsmusik.
That’s the extraordinary thing about this symphony; it evokes
so many connections, but with hints rather than the hard sell. Schnittke’s
judicious use of percussion is particularly thrilling here. The long
fourth movement – Lento. Allegro – slips in almost
unnoticed; thereafter we hear the opening of Tchaikovsky’s First
Piano Concerto, presented as if in a demented loop. The Kodo-like drumming
is tinglesome too.
If anything Rozhdestvensky seems more concentrated than Segerstam in
this movement; ever the archaeologist he sifts through the soil and
comes up with all manner of interesting artefacts. Oh, and is that a
snatch of bimm-bamming from Mahler’s Third? Perhaps not,
but quite frankly anything’s possible in this magpie of a score.
As if to underline the point we’re suddenly pitched into a jazz
club, complete with high-lying trumpet, and then into the midst of a
marching band. Those who might recoil at such juxtapositions really
need to hear this, for it all fits together so well. Even that gaudy
organ part seems entirely apt in this context.
At more than sixty minutes this isn’t a short symphony, but such
is the quality of Schnittke’s invention that there are no longueurs
to speak of. The advocacy of conductors such as Rozhdestvensky and Segerstam
– not to mention orchestras that really embrace the piece –
certainly helps. Several commentators have suggested that Shostakovich
is integral to Schnittke’s oeuvre; I suppose they share a subversive
wit and a propensity for deflating decorum. That’s all too evident
in this poly-everything of a finale. However, it’s Segerstam who
turns this music into a genuine, and strangely affecting, tour de
force. The storm of applause that breaks at the end of the latter’s
performance is well deserved.
Now for a word or two about Rozhdestvensky’s Chandos recording
(CHAN 9417). Decent though it is, it’s only a simulacrum of his
Melodiya one. There’s little of that ear-telling detail or those
truly off-the-wall moments that makes this music come alive; that may
have something to do with the Chandos sound, which is poorly balanced
and rather airless. If that were the only recording of this symphony
from Rozhdestvensky one might be tempted to dismiss the piece as merely
interesting. Thank heavens Melodiya have given us such a wonderful alternative;
it does everyone proud.
This is a mandatory purchase for Schnittke's friends and foes alike;
Segerstam is still pretty special, though.