Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Lev Butenin - reciter
========= from the cover ==========
Schnittke: Symphony No. 8
The Census List
I first met Alfred Schnittke in Moscow in the late 1960s - the short period of Krushchev's thaw - when he was just beginning to become famous in both Russia and the West. His music was included in the programmes of festivals of modern music and in 1969 he started to work on his First Symphony. Five years later it was performed in Gorky, a city closed to foreigners, four hundred kilometres north-west of Moscow. The communist officials did not allow this work to be performed in Moscow itself; the music was, in their opinion, far too dissident. The elements of collage and theatricality within this First Symphony also shocked many purists, so much so that it was performed only once in the following decade. The response of the public, however, was enthusiastic, and since then each new composition by Schnittke has been eagerly awaited. The First Symphony is characterised by a scattering of street tunes, classical quotations and light waltzes, all carefully interwoven to create an impression of everyday life. He subsequently changed his attitude to this direct borrowing, realising that he had been searching for a means of combining different stylistic elements, rather than direct quotations, within a universal language. The hidden, extramusical energy in Schnittke's music emerges in clashes of completely different styles, languages and even musics. His material is often drawn from the 'genetic well' of cultural memory. He told me once:
I am just fixing what I hear... It's not me, who writes my music, I am just a tool, a bearer....
Schnittke's eight symphonies reflect the various facets of humanity's history. The First, Third, Fifth and Seventh are concerned with cultural entities; the Second and Fourth symbolise religious faith; and the Sixth and Eighth, like the other even-numbered symphonies, relate to spiritual experience. In the Second Symphony the music moves in accordance with the sections of the Mass; in fact it has a subtitle, 'Missa Invisibile'. The Fourth Symphony follows the canons of Jesus Christ's Passions, although the most important ideas seem to rise above these canons, according to detailed 'commentaries' by the composer. Here, Schnittke is searching for unity and harmony between various manifestations of belief in what is basically a cycle of variations on four different religious tunes (Catholic, Protestant, Judaic and Orthodox). The Fifth Symphony incorporates a concerto grosso at the beginning and a symphony at the end, and the Seventh contains 'German symbols' (its second movement starts with the monogram 'Deutschland') although the overall character is no longer monumental, rather lyrical and ironic. Schnittke tries to find a new shape, a new angle, but still remains within the true German symphonic tradition. With him this tradition of the great European dramatic symphony came to an end.
Schnittke's Sixth (1992), Seventh (1993) and Eighth (1994) symphonies surprise by the rarefied nature of their sound, reminiscent of the fabric of Shostakovich's late works. The score of these symphonies contains almost no passages for full orchestra. Instead, the orchestra plays in groups, creating a texture which seems ascetically dry and abstract.
It is perhaps surprising that Schnittke wrote over half his major compositions during the last thirteen years of his life, when he was gravely ill. One of his last works, the Ninth Symphony (1996-7), he composed solely with his left hand when he was already unable to speak and could hardly move. During the same period, between 1996 and 1998, he also completed a piece for viola and chamber orchestra and a set of variations for string quartet. Musically Schnittke's latest works are 'synthetic': they combine typical elements of his earlier style (1970s and early 1980s) with some new tendencies, reflecting his current search for a new type of very economical but expressive musical language. He was seeking to rediscover the kind of language found in the work of Luigi Nono or Josef-Matthias Hauer, concerned not with extramusical associations and shocking contrasts, but with an 'even tension' (Schnittke's expression) within the music's structure.
Symphony No. 8 was written in 1994, shortly before the illness which left his right hand paralysed. I clearly remember him in Eppendorf hospital near Hamburg on 24 November 1994, the day he turned sixty. He was listening to the recording of Symphony No. 8, made by the dedicatee Gennady Rozhdestvensky at the first performance in Stockholm on 10 November 1994. As we sat listening to the last, fifth movement of the symphony, surrounded by flowers from friends, it became apparent to us all that Schnittke was using ascending scales to express his spiritual feelings during his fatal illness. Symphony No. 8, as well as Symphony No. 9, is one of the most lyrical and Mahlerian works he wrote (it contains an especially beautiful slow movement), a rather post-Romantic completion to Schnittke's symphonic route.
Many ideas in Schnittke's music come from his work as a theatre and film composer. He wrote music for more than sixty films and for many theatrical performances (this was the only way for him to make a living in the 1960s-1980s). For instance, the music for a cartoon called Glass Accordion became the basis for his Second Violin Sonata, the most innovative and unusual polystylistic piece by Schnittke in the late 1960s. Expressive stereotypes first used in his film music became an integral part of the language used in his symphonies and Concerto Grosso No. 1. The melody from the film The Agony (1974) reappeared after many years in the finale of the Second Cello Concerto (1990). The polka from the film How Tsar Peter Got the Black Man Married began a chain of stylistic modifications to the First Symphony, which contains many themes borrowed from his incidental music. The vulgar street melody recalls the fateful 'church bells' motif at the beginning of his Concerto Grosso No. 1, a work in which the most exciting moments come from music for the cartoon Butterfly. For Schnittke these two worlds of 'incidental' and 'serious' music co-exist and interpenetrate each other. 'Montages' of different images, clashes of different mentalities and conflicts between different traditions all exist in his scores from the 1970s. Music for the play The Census List (after Nikolai Gogol) was written for the Moscow avant-garde Taganka Theatre and its Artistic Director Yuri Liubimov in 1978, a project realised as a kind of reply to unjust criticism from the officials. Earlier that year Liubimov, Schnittke and conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky were denounced by the Communist Party newspaper Pravda for their innovative production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades in Paris. The Census List was presented as a free fantasy on different novels/plays by the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol in order for Schnittke and his friends to show that any classical piece or play can be interpreted freely and independently. Later on, The Census List was transformed into a ballet score, Sketches, and staged at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in 1985. Some of its numbers have been orchestrated by Gennady Rozhdestvensky.
- Alexander Ivashkin (2001)
Born in 1941, Lev Butenin attended the Gorky Arts Theatre studio school of the USSR in Moscow. His varied career included performances in more than fifty cinema and theatre roles, where his repertoire ranged from classical to contemporary. Before his death in 2000 Lev Butenin worked under the direction of Nikolay Gubenko at the Actors' Teamwork in the Taganka theatre in Moscow.
The Russian State Symphony Orchestra, or Soviet Philharmonic Orchestra as it was originally called, was formed by the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky. It has made numerous concert tours throughout Russia, Europe, the USA and Japan and has performed alongside many world-famous musicians and conductors including Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Nikolai Petrov, Yuri Bashmet, Vladimir Spivakov and Zubin Mehta.
Since 1992 the Orchestra has been conducted by Valeri Polyansky and has given innumerable concerts together with the Russian State Symphonic Cappella. In that same year the Orchestra toured the USA, Canada, Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Japan and Taiwan.
After graduating from the Moscow State Conservatory, Valeri Polyansky attended a postgraduate course in opera and symphonic conducting, for which he studied with Gennady Rozhdestvensky.
Valeri Polyansky began his professional career conducting at the Moscow Operetta Theatre and at the Bolshoi Theatre. During this time he also worked with all the leading symphony orchestras of Moscow. In 1992 he became Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Russian State Symphonic Cappella and Russian State Symphony Orchestra.
Valeri Polyansky has wide connections with other leading Russian and international symphony orchestras; he has conducted the State Chamber Orchestra of Belorussia, the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra and the Taipei Symphony Orchestra. He was involved with a production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Gothenburg Music Theatre in Sweden and in 1993 was Principal Conductor at the Gothenburg Festival.
The extraordinary religious feeling of the Eighth Symphony is no doubt a product of the decade of illness that preceded its composition. Schnittke had a series of strokes beginning in 1985 and refused to surrender to them, continuing his career and producing a notable quantity of excellent new music until his death in 1999. The composer acknowledged that this led him into contemplation of subjects beyond this world, and brought to the surface both his Christian faith and his Jewish heritage. This symphony was premiered in Stockholm on November 10, 1994, with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting.
The opening movement is in a passacaglia-like form, with see-sawing ostinato theme repeated twenty-two more times, sometimes in variant forms. For the first five repeats, the theme moves from one instrument to another. The sixth through ninth make up a restrained yet passionate climax. The eleventh is fugal. The harmonies change in the fourteenth variations (with a prominent part for harpsichord), moving onto a more mysterious plane. The rest of the movement turns more rarified, ethereal, with higher, more exotic sounds.
The second movement is a little faster and at first sounds like the ostinato of the first movement is continuing. But this turns out to be a related three-note figure that dominates the music. It seems to be witness to strange, sobering events.
The third movement, at nearly half the symphony's thirty-eight minutes, is a Lento, the centerpiece of the symphony. The music recalls the Adagios of Mahler's later works. The music is episodic, with recurrences of an important and very moving theme. Towards the end Schnittke makes a remarkable synthesis in a passage that combines Bruckner, Liszt, Brunnhilde's Annunciation from Die WalkYre Russian Orthodox chant, and a predominantly Catholic spirituality.
Fanfares from the second movement return to launch the fourth, a five-minute fast movement, a very bleak evocation of Shostakovich's darkest music. The final movement, at two minutes, is essentially a coda. Eerie, otherworldy sounds usher the symphony off the stage in cryptic chords and a fading pedal point.
- Joseph Stevenson