Schnittke Violin Concerto no. 1

performed by Mark Lubotsky and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Eri Klas, available on Spotify

(cover image by Bohdan Lesiv)

I see a desperate striving to find myself in the work on this concerto. This quest was very rarely successful, indeed only on occasions… It was a sound world of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, overshadowed by Shostakovich and adorned with the orchestral conventions of the day. But there was also a tiny breath of everything that was to come later, and for this reason it should remain, with all the faults of a first violin concerto…

from the BIS booklet

Here we have yet another of Schnittke’s earlier works. While he speaks openly about how he feels this work is, for lack of a better term, immature, he did see fit to publish it, and it is therefore the first of his four concertos for the instrument.

Composition on the work began in 1956, while the young composer was still at the Moscow Conservatory. He says that “I called it my Opus 1 – the last opus number I have hitherto assigned.” The work was not performed until having been revised a few years later, in 1963, November 26, to be precise, with Lubotsky and the Moscow Radio Symphony under the baton of the late Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 37 minutes.

  1. Allegro non tanto
  2. Presto
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro scherzando

Here again, I’ll say that like the symphony we discussed on Tuesday, it might not (and how could it be?) the most original of his output, but big aspirations aside, as a standalone violin concerto, it’s a very engaging work. I would without hesitation choose to hear this live over the Mendelssohn concerto any day.

The first and longest movement opens with a solo violin that presents what is more or less sort of the DNA of the entire work. BIS speaks of this ‘leading motive’ and its secondary counterpart (of this sonata-form movement) as being the basis upon which the rest of the piece is formed.

In contrast with the ‘0’ symphony, there’s more outright pain here, much more like the desperation and hopelessness of Shostakovich. Woodwinds enter after the soloist’s minute-long soliloquy, and the strings provide the backbone, or heartbeat (whichever anatomical parallel you prefer, and the first movement is underway. If the symphony pulled you along, this darker violin concerto pulls you under, sort of infects you.

There are a few points at which the music really changes shape, one of which is when the piano enters, one of the first times the violin soloist is told what to do, you could say, and once the piano starts this idea, the violin follows. The development gets serious, with more militaristic snare-drum clacks that call Shostakovich to mind; that being said, no matter how derivative a work you feel this is, it’s so colorful, so engaging, that I cannot help but enjoy it. It’s rare that the soloist isn’t present, isn’t leading the way in this movement, but when he’s not, the orchestra come through in a big way. Wait for the cadenza, though. We get a glimpse of what the later Schnittke would sound like, even in this faux-placid passage. The movement ends quietly with the clack of an anvil, or similar.

The second movement is an outburst, by far the shortest movement of the piece, and seems so intent on its emotional impulsivity that there’s hardly room for any kind of trio or distinguishable pause in the action. It’s menacing, or to use the word many others have, diabolical. What’s interesting to me, though, is how the focus is still given to the soloist. This isn’t a symphonic scherzo, nor is it just a showy violin piece. It satisfyingly accomplishes both before its glorious, incongruous climax.

The opening of the andante sounds Mahler in the sense that it sounds like Shostakovich writing like Mahler, tragic, pained, but also somehow maybe just the slightest bit soothing, at least as compared to what came prior.

This probably is the most like the mature Schnittke that we’ve heard in either of the works this week. He and Shostakovich (I should probably order those the other way around) have this knack for creating crystalline, diaphanous, otherworldly texture that’s transparent and delicate but also has… mass. The soloist at times takes on the haunting timbre of a Theremin, in its glassy stillness, and it’s in these inner movements, along with the beginning of the finale, that I feel that the overall architecture of this piece shows it to be more than just a vehicle for the soloist to do exciting or pretty things. It really has substance, no matter how immature or faulty or poor the composer himself thought it was.

The finale begins with a line from double bass that is nothing short of groovy. Could this be the composer’s first swing at his ‘polystylism,’ with a jazzy, catchy tune coming off of this pensive slow movement? This finale, also in sonata form, picks up the ‘leading motive’ material we heard in the very beginning, these strands or ideas, and it may not be 100% identifiable to you at first pass, but with the composer’s writing here, it can survive on excitement alone. The work is really brought together by the coda of this finale, touching on the content we heard and giving us a colorful, exciting finish.

Schnittke would indeed go on to write three more concertos for violin, so this is no magnum opus for him, even in that genre alone, but just as a piece of music, no context, it’s just satisfying, with a soloist, with the orchestra. I like it; we’re hearing more of the elements that may not actually here be but will later become more challenging in Schnittke’s music. Even here, though, he’s much more akin to Shostakovich than later Schnittke. Labels aside, I like the work.

Stay tuned for one more snippet of Schnittke this weekend before we move on to Sallinen. Thanks so much for reading.

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One thought on “Schnittke Violin Concerto no. 1

  1. Hadn’t heard this before. Wow, that slow movement – gorgeous even (or perhaps especially) when evidently expressing suffering! Definitely not a work to be sneezed at, least of all by its composer.

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