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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op. 61 (1806) [41:47]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Violin Concerto No.3 (1978) [24:51]
Vadim Gluzman (violin)
Lucerne Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan
rec. November 2017 (Schnittke) and December 2019 and January 2020 (Beethoven) Kultur- und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne, Switzerland
Reviewed as downloaded in 24/96 sound, with pdf booklet, from
BIS BIS-2392 SACD [67:28]

It is seldom that the gigantic figure of Beethoven gets overshadowed, but on this wonderful new release it is the less well-known figure of Alfred Schnittke that looms over proceedings. This amounts to more than just the bare facts that one of the works is by him and he supplies the pair of cadenzas in the Beethoven. In all sorts of ways, Schnittke’s is the presiding spirit.

Schnittke’s music is best known for its polystylism, a term I think is apt to give the wrong impression of his music. Yes, Schnittke does weave in lots of different musical styles from the past but his philosophy is anything but post-modernist. These are not ironic pastiches but deep and serious responses to the music of the past. Of great relevance to this disc, Schnittke’s use of musical quotations puts him in a line that stretches from Bach through Schumann to, most importantly, Shostakovich. Whereas quotation is a feature of the work of those composers, it is raised to a compositional technique in Schnittke’s music. His handling of it is close to the psychological idea of emotional associations. We give meaning to our environment in all sorts of ways but particularly we invest it with emotional meaning. As a result, objects in our environment can revive emotional memories. Art, and particularly music, take this to a higher level. Music bypasses most of the cognitive functions of the brain, such as the language centres, and speaks directly to the emotions. Of course, music can be thought about but music without an emotional response is almost unthinkable.

Listening to a piece of music takes place in the present moment but music that means something to us, for example Beethoven’s violin concerto, is overlaid with a complex network of emotional associations. It is upon these systems of emotional associations that the music of Schnittke acts and to which it reacts. The cadenza for the first movement of the Beethoven illustrates this approach in a spectacular coup de théâtre. It dramatises the composer Schnittke’s own musical and emotional associations with the work of art that is the Beethoven violin concerto. Out of Schnittke’s musical associations tumble the violin concertos of Berg, Brahms and Shostakovich and even at one point the slow movement of Beethoven’s own Seventh symphony. But none of these are exact quotations. They are like something half remembered, filtered through Schnittke’s creative imagination. They darken the otherwise serene music of the concerto but, to my ears, they help me notice the darker shadows that pass over the serenity from time to time. The simple device of the timpani taps which open the work are deployed to call the free associating Schnittke back to the work in hand until a mighty roll on the timpani wakes him from his reverie.

I first became aware of these Schnittke cadenzas from the huge hoohah that greeted Gidon Kremer’s recording of the Beethoven concerto with Neville Marriner in 1983. I didn’t actually hear this recording for many years, when it was hard to hear what all the fuss was about. Worse, I wasn’t terribly convinced by what Schnittke had done. It seemed a little trendy and post-modern in the worst sense. Listening again to the Kremer recording for this review, I felt that the older violinist largely fails to knit together the disparate elements into a convincing musical argument in the way Gluzman does. Far from being an anachronism, the cadenza in the first movement seems an intensely personal response to the Beethoven. In Gluzman’s hands it is also surprisingly moving. I hear the beauty of the concerto as a whole as being born out of and in answer to the pain of the composer’s life.

The cadenza in the finale is, if anything, even more powerful. This cadenza is normally given as a brief set of flourishes in keeping with the overall jolly mood of the movement. Schnittke’s associative approach brings back memories of the deeper, more serious music of the first movement and, by extension, associations with the impact of the first movement cadenza. It is both troubling and inspiring. Then Schnittke pulls off a masterstroke – the orchestral violins join the soloist in a swirling, ascending figure which is just electrifying, utterly unexpected. The figure disappears into the ether. When the Beethoven resumes, we are recovering from the shock, so it seems changed. Perhaps we have been changed a little. And the Beethoven seems renewed and gleams like new paint. Kremer and Marriner rather botch the job by sticking with bizarre rigidity to a strict rhythm. Gluzman and Gaffigan need to be heard to see how this astonishing moment is meant to go.

This tendency to allusion and association is even more pronounced on the other work on the SACD: Schnittke’s third violin concerto from 1978. So pronounced is the tendency here that the composer was forced to deny that the somewhat romantic-sounding theme in the final movement was not in fact a quotation from either Mahler or Schubert. This does take us deep into Schnittke’s musical world. In this work none of the allusions are direct quotations. Instead, they are hints or nudges. Just enough to provoke emotional associations without absolutely nailing them down. Their emotional force derives from this very open-endedness. Like his great contemporary, Gubaidulina, Schnittke’s music superficially seems to be made from very little material, certainly proportional to its emotional impact.

By the time he came to write this particular concerto, Schnittke’s use of this way of writing music had acquired considerable sophistication. The building blocks of the final movement are the Romantic phrase already mentioned, music that appears to be derived from Russian Orthodox chant and some lyrical writing for the violin above the stave. The Romantic melody is the most obviously ripe with associations – it reminded me of the passage in Das Rheingold where mention is made of Freia’s golden apples that give eternal youth to the gods – and this ripeness opens up a rather simple phrase to allow a world of both music and feeling. With this phrase the whole mainstream Germanic classical tradition is ushered in, and in whatever form that tradition is meaningful to the listener.

Even within the context of this disc, the high-lying writing for the soloist in this movement made me think of the glorious and similarly high-lying writing I had just heard in the Beethoven concerto. Nothing is spelled out. It is up to each individual listener. I have no idea if Schnittke was thinking of the Beethoven concerto when he wrote this concerto but it doesn’t really matter. Gluzman, by putting the two together and playing them the way he does, allowed me to find an association, however subjective, between them.

Gluzman’s performance of this Schnittke concerto is gripping and intense from the first bars of its almost improvisatory opening. He finds great beauty in even the relatively austere music of the opening movement, is suitably rebarbative in the middle movement, but touches on the sublime in the climactic finale. Out of an emotionally frigid wasteland, he and Schnittke conjure up a profound meditation on mortality, memory and art.

Leaving aside interpretive matters, Gluzman makes the kind of sound I could happily listen to for hours on end. His double stopping reminds me a little of David Oistrakh in the almost sensual way he strokes them. Even up in the stratosphere, his tone is sweet and full bodied. Less angelic perhaps than Kreisler in the Beethoven but, as I have indicated, I don’t think Gluzman’s conception of the Beethoven is quite as untroubled.

Schnittke cadenzas or not, this is one of the great performances of the Beethoven. I thought this on first listen but decided to reserve judgment until I had really got to know this performance. If anything, my admiration has deepened with familiarity. From his very first entrance, Gluzman’s unhurried composure and gleaming tone ooze magnetism. He is helped in this by James Gaffigan’s very positive contribution to proceedings. He generates a real sense of hushed anticipation every time the music fades down for the soloist’s entries.

Whatever constitutes magic in music, it is what I hear at the very start of the development. Time seems to stop but Gluzman phrases with such utter naturalness, it is the opposite of affected or attention seeking. This is one of many such moments, but they are woven into an overall conception of this opening movement that makes sense as drama. I’m sorry to say that I have always found Isabelle Faust’s much praised version with Abbado rather glum, and it certainly seems more so to me in comparison to the vivid, teeming life Gluzman and Gaffigan conjure up.

The slow movement again highlights the easy inevitability of Gluzman’s phrasing. This is something that just can’t be taught. Overall the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra give superb support with just the right amount of period manners to their playing but I want to give special mention to the delicious clarinet playing. At the opening of the slow movement, the duet between soloist and the clarinets is as close to heaven as I can imagine.

The touch of earthiness Gaffigan finds in the orchestral statements of the main theme of the finale is typical of the tasteful imagination that has been expended on this performance. The emphasis on the bass produces a drone-like effect that has the Pastoral symphony’s peasants dancing into view.

As I hope I have indicated, one of the great successes of this performance is the way it integrates the Schnittke cadenzas convincingly into the whole so that they add to our appreciation of Beethoven rather than distract from it. The same could be said for the whole album, which is much more than just a random coupling. The Schnittke echoes and reflects back the Beethoven, the Beethoven emerges refreshed from the encounter with the Schnittke.

Only time will tell, but I will be genuinely surprised if this account of the Beethoven doesn’t join the ranks of such legendary performances as Kreisler, Menuhin or Schneiderhan. In other words, this isn’t just a good modern version but good: full stop. I have noted how the performers draw out the darker aspects of the Beethoven but they do so that the bright colours gleam even brighter.

David McDade

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