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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 as BIS-1767.

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.

Dan Morgan



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