SCHNITTKE: Piano Quintet / String Trio / Stille Musik

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Alfred Schnittke(1934-1998)

Piano Quintet StringTrio Stille Musik Fuga Klingende Buchstaben

Born in Engels on 24th November 1934, to parents of German-Jewishorigin, Alfred Schnittke spent his early years in Vienna, where he received hisearliest musical instruction. Resident in Moscow from 1946, he studied at theOctober Revolution Music Academy, and at the Moscow Conservatory, with YevgenyGolubev and Nikolay Rakov, from 1948 to 1953: becoming a teacher ofinstrumentation there for ten years from 1962. He was elected a member of theFederation of Composers in 1961. Film scores formed the backbone of his musicalundertakings during the 1960s and early 1970s, and he became a member of theFederation of Cinematographers in 1970. From 1980, he was a guest teacher atthe Hochschule f??r Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna. He was a member ofthe Akademie der Kunst of the former German Democratic Republic, and of theBayerische Akademie der Schonen Kunste. He was awarded the State Prize of theRSFSR in 1986. A series of strokes from 1985 coincided with the increasingdissemination of his work in Western Europe, where he came to be seen as thetrue successor to Shostakovich. Resident in Hamburg from 1990, he died on 3rdAugust 1998.

Schnittke's music falls into several discernible phases. After aformative period where Shostakovich vied for influence with Prokofiev,Stravinsky and Hindemith, the greater availability of new music at the turn ofthe 1960s led to a time of increasing

Experimentation, as first serial techniques, latterly collage andaleatoric devices were incorporated into the composer's technical armoury. Thestylistic melting-pot that is the First Symphony gave way, in themid-1970s, to a more intuitive composition, with quotation and allusion nowintegral to what Schnittke termed his 'polystylistic' mode of expression. Inthe early 1990s, the effects of prolonged ill-health brought about a finalperiod in which the expressive focus becomes narrower and starker; the musicseeming to exist, like the composer himself, almost at a point of no return.

Written in 1953, the Fugue is among the adolescent composer'searliest surviving efforts, bearing witness to studies well learnt and, giventhe enforced insularity of musical life at the close of Stalin's reign, anengaging, if unformed, combination of old and new. The forthright subject isnaturally in the mould of Bach' s unaccompanied works, but with Shostakovich'sMussorgskian manner strongly in evidence. The pizzicato presentation of the subject(2'08") adds a malevolent undercurrent which Schnittke would intensify inhis mature work.

One of the performers to have become most associated with Schnittke inhis later years is the cellist Alexander Ivashkin, now resident in the UnitedKingdom and author of the only book-length study in English of the composer(Phaidon Press, 1996). Klingende Buchstaben (Sounding Letters) was atribute to Ivashkin on his fortieth birthday in 1988. Opening with a monogramderiving from the cellist's first name -A-E-A-D-E- what begins as a mournfulsoliloquy, becomes inceasingly impassioned. A central climax, with flailingglissandi, is reached, after which (2'21\) the music returns to its broodingopening depths; finally ascending out of earshot.

Schnittke's Piano Quintet is in many respects the defining workof his career. Begun in 1972, in the wake of his mother's death and, perhaps,as a reaction to the titanic conflict with the musical past and present thatforms the basis of the vast First Symphony (1969-72), the work tookSchnittke longer to complete than any other. Many sketches were tried andrejected in the process of composition, some of which went into the Requiem whichSchnittke wrote during 1972-4, and used clandestinely as the music for aproduction of Schiller's Don Carlos by Moscow's Mossovet Theatre in1975. Shostakovich died in August that year, and it is not impossible that thequintet became a double homage, stylistically indebted as it is to the lastthree string quartets of the older composer. Schnittke's orchestration of thework in 1978, as In Memoriam, consolidates the feeling that this is inessence an instrumental requiem.

In its haze of never-quite-literal allusions, moreover, the quintet wouldremain the stylistic template for his music over the next fifteen years. Afragile piano solo, with an ominous Schubertian trill in the left hand, lauchesthe opening Moderato, before the strings enter (1'34") inconfirmation of the frozen mood. Their narrow intervallic range lends aclaustrophobic air as tension gradually mounts, the piano remaining detachedwith a stark repeated-note gesture. Its more conciliatory rejoinder preparesfor the second movement. Marked In Tempo di Valse, this opensunexpectedly with a bittersweet waltz idea, the strings becoming entangled indense canonic strands of sound which quickly transform the music into a danceof death. Descending trills (from 1'56") offer a vivid proximity of thiswork to the Thirteenth Quartet of Shostakovich. The waltz motionresumes, only to collapse in on itself even more completely. The music movespensively into the third movement, Andante, a grieving threnody forstrings, offset by passive gestures from the piano, which maintain a tenuoustonal outline. Stabbing string dischords (3'02") alternate with a dourcello solo, before (4'51") a piano cadence pointedly recallsShostakovich's Piano Quintet. The sound dissolves, leaving a quietdepressing of the pedals to introduce the fourth movement. Marked Lento, thisreturns to the mood and textures of the opening movement. A series of starkcadential phrases from solo strings contrast with impassioned statements forthe ensemble. Eventually (3'19") the music freezes into a prolongeddiscord, which fades out into the Finale, Moderato pastorale, and thestrongest contrast imaginable - an undulating motion, high in the piano, of analmost musical-box whimsicality. This appears fourteen times as the basis foran unlikely passacaglia, during which the strings review ideas from earlier inthe work, as gradually a stable, even affirmative tonal feel comes into focus(2'47"). The piano remains on its own at the close, now repeating itsrefrain as a benediction on that which came before.

Written in April 1979and dedicated to the memory of Michail Druskin, the St Petersburg musicologistand champion of new music, Stille Musik (Silent music) is typical of theshort pieces for strings - singly, in combination and with piano - foundthroughout Schnittke's maturity. Equally typical is the way in which thecomposer subverts a simple three-?¡part structure so that the audible formbecomes anything but straightforward. The piece starts out fitfully, itsprogress toward any tonal or melodic definition interspersed with pizzicatogestures and solo lines which emerge fleetingly from the texture. After a briefcentral climax (3'19"), the music solidifies into a tenuous band of sound,rich in microtonal inflections, before fading out of earshot.

Completed in thespring of 1985, as a commission from the Alban Berg Society of Vienna tocommemorate both the centenary of that composer's birth, and the fiftiethanniversary of his death, the String Trio is Schnittke's homage to thecity where, as a piano student, he spent a short but vital stage of hisformative years. Echoes of Schubert and Mahler, as well as Berg, resonatethrough the intense and often tortured progress of this two-movement work. Amelodic strain emerges immediately in the opening Moderato, thedistinctive five-note idea for
Disc: 1
String Trio
1 Fuga for Solo Violin
2 Klingende Buchstaben for Solo Cello
3 Moderato
4 In Tempo di Valse
5 Andante
6 Lento
7 Moderato pastorale
8 Stille Musik for Violin and Cello
9 Moderato
10 Adagio
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