Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for piano and strings

performed by Roland Pöntinen and the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra under Lev Markiz, or below by Ksenia Kogan and the Korean Chamber Orchestra under Sergey Smbatyan

Alfred Garrievich Schnittke was born on 24 November, 1934. His father was born in Frankfurt and moved to the Soviet Union for work in 1927, and so it seems most of Schnittke’s family or background has German heritage; his mother was a “Volga German born in Russia.” Schnittke started studying music in Vienna at the age of 12, and he says he “felt every moment there,” in speaking of the history of the place, and he apparently is to have identified with “Mozart and Schubert, not Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.” A few years later, the family moved to Moscow, where he continued his education. He did a large amount of film music, something like two scores a year for three decades.

He suffered from poor health and a poor standing with Soviet officials, at one point being banned from leaving the Soviet Union. He had a stroke in 1985, and “was declared clinically dead on several occasions, but recovered and continued to compose.” In 1990, he relocated to Hamburg, and had a number of strokes before finally dying on 3 August, 1998, at the age of 63, being buried in Moscow not far from Shostakovich.

Alfred Schnittke is a composer whose work often interests or intrigues me more than pleases me. His music is often about seeming-incongruous juxtapositions, wild contrasts, and, in my opinion, coming to grips with the grotesque. His music expresses a reverence for tradition and classical forms (like the concerto grosso, of which he wrote five, his nine symphonies, etc.), but also radical innovation or expression of harshness, dissonance, and color. Or that’s my impression from the brushes with his music that I’ve had.

I should say it is worth noting that he did take some influence from serialism, after a visit by Luigi Nono, but abandoned that idea after not very long, having become “dissatisfied with what he termed the ‘puberty rites of serial self-denial,'” whereupon his idea of “polystylism” took over, juxtaposition and use of contrasts that can at times seem completely incongruous.

Like I’ve said, all of that intrigues me, interests me, in the way you’d visit a foreign fresh market and see all manner of weird vegetables and fruits of all shapes and colors, maybe even never-before-seen (to you) animal bits for sale, ostensibly for consumption, and how you’re curious and interested about this new variety and color, but still likely apprehensive to try it.

That being said, I feel one of Schnittke’s most approachable works, which I came across mostly by accident, is his piano concerto, from 1979. It’s on the same disc as his concerto grosso no. 1 and the concerto for oboe and harp. It comes in at only around 21 minutes, and is a form I’m much more familiar with than the baroque-based concerto grosso, so I gave it a listen.

It’s captivating, a piece in one big movement of about 22 minutes. It begins with a long, slow, darkly quiet introduction from the piano, but strings enter shortly thereafter and the piece fills out to begin to show us its true colors.

Listen to the work once or twice, and what you’ll hear is a few distinct qualities that make themselves blatantly manifest. I’m not going to try to play-by-play this one through, because it’s one entity, it is an experience that must be looked upon in retrospect, as a composite whole.

One of the things you’ll notice straightaway is a kind of fragrant dissonance. Much of this writing is choral, tonal, richly harmonic in character, but with a few shrieking, out-of-place-sounding elements, which is almost more surprising than, say, Schoenberg’s piano concerto, which is entirely serial. The juxtaposition of this seeming tonality, a blanket of soft harmonies against an almost grating dissonance makes for an interesting soundworld, one that Schnittke uses to great effect.

Something else that shows up throughout the work at various critical, memorable points is this three-chord progression from the strings, playing 1-2-3 in a full-bodied, towering almost overwhelming wave of rich, beautiful, church-like music. At some points here, the piano almost crashes in with tragic or heartbroken-sounding melodies, either moving with or against the orchestra. There are moments of powerful, soul-shaking climax, but also either idyllic or unsettling pauses of near-complete silence.

The piece will recall, reflect, quote itself in different passages; it’s shimmery and shiny and at some points metallic, but it’s more like a curtain made of shards of glass, strings of shimmery slivers of mirror suspended from the ceiling, and as you walk through them there’s both shimmery beauty, reflections of what you’ve seen in all directions, but also a sharpness, a piercing, edge-like shimmer. But Schnittke’s piece presents this dichotomy as entirely normal, as just another walk through the park, an exploration of this contrast. He puts it to use in a form that many people would be familiar with, and treats it with similar familiarity. The concerto grosso is a form that many listeners may not be familiar with, and sometimes the modern use of the ‘symphony’ label is quite broad, but what we have here is a pretty straightforward piano concerto, one with themes and recognizable content, and there are even cadenza-like passages. That being said, you certainly wouldn’t mistake it for Beethoven or Brahms or Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, really anyone else but Schnittke if you’ve heard his music.

It might not be for everyone, but at least one fellow listener took me up on the recommendation, someone who, to my knowledge, has never even listened to the Beethoven piano concertos (or Brahms or much else of the vast majority of the standard repertoire) and was highly intrigued by this piece. It definitely has its own character, one that can be captivating and spellbinding for those willing to give it a try.  I really do think it’s maybe the greatest entry point into Schnittke’s music (from what I’ve heard), not only because it’s in a familiar form, but it exemplifies what his music is about without distancing the listener or challenging them too much. It’s of a pretty digestible length, at safely less than a half hour, and is just downright interesting. A very enjoyable piece, in my opinion.

And that, my friends and fellow listeners, is the end of our New November series. I am excited to tack Schnittke’s name on my board of posts, and we’ll eventually get back around to more of his music, but he and Feldman bring us the most modern installments of the month (and some of the most recent music on the blog, aside from Glass and a Rautavaara revision). Stay tuned, though, for November’s wrap-up article and the introduction of what we’ll be doing in December. See you next month.

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