It is an astonishing statistic that between the years of 1961
and 1984 Alfred Schnittke produced no less than sixty film scores. They included
music for modern films as well as revivalist scores for silent movies and a
number of cartoon films. At the same time as producing these scores at the rate
of nearly three a year, Schnittke managed to continue to amass a substantial
catalogue of work for the concert hall with many of his concert works, not surprisingly
perhaps, often incorporating thematic ideas from the particular film score he
was working on at the time. Sadly many of these films are not available outside
Russia and it is inevitable that a good number of the scores themselves have
been lost never to be found. Indeed, it is largely down to the conductor on
this disc, Frank Strobel, who enjoyed a close working relationship with the
composer, that we are able to hear several of the film scores that have thus
come to light.
It has to be said that the music presented on this disc is
not always Schnittke at his best, yet his polystylistic language was finely
suited to the medium of film and nearly all of the music is highly characteristic
and immediately recognisable as his work. Musically, it is My Past and Thoughts
and Agony that have the most flesh on their bones, The End of St.
Petersburg and The Master and Margarita coming from the early
1990s by which time the composer had already suffered serious ill health, his
compositional style having undergone a radical change to a sparser, even severe
economy of means. That said, the latest work in particular, The Master and
Margarita, does show many a glimpse of his earlier stylistic traits and
is notable for a quite startling take on Ravel's Bolero. In point of
fact, references to well known tunes abound throughout these scores, including
the Marseillaise and the Russian Imperial Anthem, sometimes firmly tongue
in cheek, sometimes transfigured into grotesque musical caricature.
My Past and Thoughts was not positively identified until
after Schnittke's death, the music originally having been assigned to another
film altogether. Framed by an eerie representation of St. Petersburg for chorus
and orchestra (what is left of the original material is strongly choral), the
inner movements range from a tender homage to the Madonna, again with chorus
and solo violin which Schnittke proceeds to "distort" in the ensuing
movement, to a lively Can Can, very much in the manner of Shostakovich
in film mode.
In contrast to the brief extracts that make up the suite from
My Past and Thoughts, Agony comprises four more expansive movements,
once again framed by related outer movements, in this case a passacaglia which
is stirringly dominated by side-drum and brass to begin whilst treated more
reflectively to conclude before building to a strident conclusion. The wonderfully
macabre waltz and tango that form the central panels (the tango surfaces in
several other Schnittke works) are in sharp contrast, yet combine to form what
I feel is probably the most musically satisfying of the four suites. This despite
the fact that this particular suite was reconstructed with great difficulty
after the original was destroyed by the Soviet authorities as a result of its
"subversive" subject matter involving Rasputin's influence over the
The brief suite from The End of St. Petersburg, Schnittke's
first score for a silent film, was composed jointly by the composer and his
son Andrey who produced parts for live electronics. Overall I find it to be
less effective than its predecessors, the changes in Schnittke's compositional
language evident if not as accentuated as in the works for the concert hall.
Interestingly The Master and Margarita of three years later is
clearly more reminiscent of his earlier style and all the more effective for
it. The aforementioned extraordinary treatment of Ravel's Bolero represents
Satan's ball at which all manner of villains and demons present themselves.
Demonic and grotesque it certainly is, not to mention brilliant in its inspiration.
Bringing this music to disc has clearly been a labour of love
for Frank Strobel who should to be applauded for his efforts. The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester
Berlin play with genuine commitment and although, perhaps inevitably, the music
is variable in its effectiveness, anyone with an interest in Schnittke's music
should not be without it.