Royal Concertgebouw Orchestrs. Riccardo Chailly - conductor. Viktor Liberman, Jaap Van Zweden
Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)
"Death and transfiguration" is an arch-concept of Romanticism; it defines an era, perhaps an entire century. It is a concept omnipresent in Alfred Schnittke's music, and yet his music is never quite Romantic. In a typical Schnittke concerto or symphony, there are no easy heroes, no valiant deaths; and almost never is there a celestial-bound Resurrection ala Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony or Richard Strauss's Tod und Verklarung. In Schnittke, death is uglier and weirder, and often utterly surprising; transfiguration frequently interrupts, too early or too late. And then the two coexist: the waking die, the dead walk, and phantoms dance wildly on their graves.
Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No. 4 / Symphony No. 5 (1988) inhabits such a zombie world. As the title suggests, the first "transfiguration" is that of the work's own genre. What starts as Baroque-Classical pastiche, complete with violin, oboe, and harpsichord soloists, turns via labyrinthine folds into a full Romantic symphony. In doing this, Schnittke creates layers of parody: Schnittke's fake-Baroque is actually his fake-Stravinsky faking Baroque, and Schnittke's fake-Romantic is actually his fake-Mahler faking Romantic - so what Schnittke "resurrects" may have never actually lived in the first place. The actual moment of transfiguration, the beginning of the Symphony "proper," doesn't begin until the work is half over. Only in the third of the piece's four movements, with the ghosts of Stravinsky and Mahler buried, does Schnittke's own musical mind take over.
The work's opening Allegro immediately alludes to a famous Stravinsky work, the Violin Concerto in D. Itself a kind of stylized melange of Baroque intricacy and Viennese Classicism, Stravinsky's work had already constructed for itself an idealized, imaginary past. Schnittke tattoos this allusion with a new surreal violence: three soloists instead of one, and a full orchestra instead of a chamber ensemble. The ripieno fumbles, the tutti tumbles, and the unbalanced movement finally explodes in a gruesome scaffold-march - whose executionees appear to be both the soloists and the genre they enact.
If Schnittke's first movement attempts to kill off an idealized past, his second attempts to resurrect a very real past, by attempting to finish the second movement of Mahler's half-completed Piano Quartet - his only surviving piece of instrumental chamber music- written when the composer was only 16. Schnittke outlines the melody of Mahler's scherzo, and initiates a series of trials to realize the completed work. Each endeavor fails more noisily, until the entire orchestra commits percussive suicide. Strange transfiguration follows, as Schnittke quotes the Mahler in its entirety (only a handful of bars) with its original instruments (only four, at the very back of the orchestra). Thus the first two movements form a palindrome: the first begins with soloists, only to be destroyed by the orchestra, while the second destroys the orchestra, only to end with soloists.
The first two movements also form a prelude to the "real" Symphony, where Schnittke creates a stylistically "pure" world - a sort of Schnittke without masks. The model is still Mahler, however, especially the Mahler of the Fifth and Ninth symphonies: there and here, one hears a music full of bile and blood: tumultuous, lyrical, and unstoppable. And yet, despite this confessional immediacy, perhaps this "two-movement Symphony" with a "two-movement Concerto-Prelude" transfigures yet another ghost, wears yet another mask: that of Franz Schubert, in his own two-movement "Unfinished" Symphony.
- Seth Brodsky (All Music Guide)