Russian State Symphony Orchestra under Valeri Polyansky
Recorded in: Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, 22 May 1999 (Symphony No. 7)
Recorded in: Mosfilm New Studio, Moscow 24 March 1999 (Cello Concerto No. 1)
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Schnittke: Symphony No. 7/Cello Concerto No. 1
Alfred Schnittke's late compositions are rather enigmatic; there are fewer notes and the texture becomes very ascetic. Unlike his earlier, gigantic scores, the late symphonies - from the Sixth to the Ninth - are rather economical, and modest in terms of orchestration, duration and density. However, the latent tension increases: the sense of his latest compositions is to be found between, rather than within, the notes themselves. The language becomes rather 'tough', dissonant and discordant; it is definitely not easy-listening music. At the first performance of Schnittke's Symphony No. 6 at Carnegie Hall in New York, almost half the audience left before the end. The remaining part, however, was very enthusiastic.
The first performance of Schnittke's Symphony No. 7 took place at New York's Avery Fisher Hall on 10 February 1994 during his last trip abroad. He was present at all the rehearsals and, as usual, was making corrections up until the end of the dress rehearsal. After the concert Schnittke stepped into a snow-drift, caught a cold and came back to Hamburg very ill. Only a few months later he suffered another stroke which left him unable to speak for four years. He was still
writing music with his left hand, and managed to complete his Ninth Symphony, a new Viola Concerto and the Variations for String Quartet before he died on 3 August 1998.
Symphony No. 7 was commissioned by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. It was in fact Masur's second commission from Schnittke; the first produced his monumental Symphony No. 3, which Masur premiered in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1981.
How different these two symphonies are! Symphony No. 3, lasting about an hour, is a musical panorama of a German symphonic idea. It contains many allusions, and from the very beginning Schnittke divides the orchestra's string section in a similar way to that found in Wagner's Das Rheingold. The second movement is an exciting journey through centuries in which Schnittke uses several monograms of German composers. The final movement of the Third Symphony sounds like a Mahlerian Adagio. Symphony No. 7 is much shorter and the value of each instrumental voice increases enormously. In fact this music is mostly single-voiced (it is not surprising that the symphony exists in a chamber version, made by a young Russian composer).
The first movement, Andante, starts with a solo by the first violin. Later, in 1997-8, Schnittke explored the same idea in his piece for viola and orchestra which begins like a viola sonata (viola and piano only), before developing into a concerto-like composition with orchestra. Later on, other instruments join the first violin's monologue, but the texture is rarely 'massive'. Music is presented as a single idea by different instruments (groups) playing in turn, imitating the main idea in canonic 'reflections', or 'crippling' it in strange, dissonant clusters.
The second movement follows without any intermission. It is a Largo which occupies only fifty-six bars, with long pauses between the phrases. This kind of slow movement is different from the long, Mahlerian adagios found in Schnittke's Symphonies Nos 1, 3 and 5, but is more akin to the slow movements of his Cello Concertos. Adagios and largos in his late compositions represent decomposition, dying, almost physical disappearance, as opposed to the more positive profile of earlier slow movements. In Symphonies Nos 3 and 5 it is the final movement which is slow, but in Symphony No. 7 the slow movement could not serve as a finale because it is too ephemeral, unsettled and fragile.
The last movement is also the longest, taking more time than the previous two put together. In the initial Allegro, Schnittke
introduces again a 'moto perpetuo', an obsessive idea which remains undeveloped. This section winds down rapidly, transforming into a waltz. The symphony seems to dissolve in this banal, old-fashioned tune, played at the end in a strange manner, in turn, by the lowest instruments of the orchestra: tuba, contra-bassoon and a double-bass.
Cello Concerto No. 1 was the first work written by Schnittke after his initial, almost devastating stroke which occurred in the summer of 1985. He was clinically dead - his heart stopped three times - and the concerto reflects this terrifying 'trip' to the next world. In fact most of the concerto's melodic material was composed before July 1985. On returning from hospital Schnittke found it all on his desk, but he had forgotten everything and had to start again from scratch. After this stroke his music became more dissonant and extremely expressionistic. Melodic lines were much more twisted than ever before.
The first movement (Pesante - Moderato) starts with a poignant monologue by a solo cello who 'declares' both subjects of the movement at the very beginning. However, this vision of the future collapses very soon, sinking into a powerful, chaotic entropy of orchestral tutti. The 'real life' (Moderato) starts somewhat uneasily, with the soloist playing against irregular, 'incorrect', 'incomprehensible' rhythms of the orchestra.
The soloist continues to fight the orchestra's resistance until suddenly the music abates, allowing the soloist to play a second tune which evokes Mahler's emotional 'splashes' in, for example, the Ninth Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde.
The development section is almost entirely a cadenza for solo cello which begins unaccompanied, continues with an orchestral accompaniment and subsequently has to fight against the orchestra. The cello is defeated and the recapitulation starts with a chilling unison-tutti, bringing us back to the concerto's opening bars. Yet again, everything collapses and the soloist is wiped off the surface of music. The more human second subject is not present here at all...
The second movement (Largo) reflects an attempt to restore life, to fix the unfixable. There is no action in this movement and the development is extremely slow, like an hallucination, but still we hear an echo of the first movement's main tune. Schnittke brings back its rhythmical skeleton but begins a new circle of events. Slow drifting leads to an outburst of energy - that of the third movement (Allegro vivace). This starts like a finale, in a mood of high fever. Very soon the second subject from the first movement reappears, as if resurrected after a disaster at the end of the first movement. But yet again it loses the battle and dies in a powerful victory of the first melody. Very soon, however, this climax also collapses. Now it seems to be a complete decomposition of everything that was achieved. We hear only short phrases, small bits here and there, repeatedly played by the soloists and harpsichord in turn in surreal, aleatoric context.
Originally Schnittke planned a three-movement concerto with a fast final movement, i.e. the Allegro vivace. But at the last moment he changed his mind and wrote a different, slow finale (fourth movement, Largo). It was like a present to me', he recalled. 'Suddenly I was given this finale from somewhere, and I've just written it down.' The last movement is a passacaglia and has the quality of a prayer. It becomes increasingly ecstatic towards the end, and the cello requires amplification at the climax.
Schnittke was able to be present at the first performance of his Cello Concerto No. 1 in Munich on 7 May 1986 which was given by the dedicatee, Russian cellist Natalia Gutman. Schnittke was given an ovation. Critics talked about 'a score with the hand of fate in it'. Since then the work has been played by many cellists in different parts of the world. It is now part of the standard cello repertoire and a compulsory piece for some important cello competitions.
- 2000 Alexander Ivashkin
Alexander Ivashkin has established an international reputation both as an interpreter of the standard repertoire and as a champion of contemporary music. He has performed in over thirty countries. He is a regular guest at major music festivals in Europe, Russia, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and has collaborated with composers such as John Cage, George Crumb, Mauricio Kagel, Krzysztof Penderecki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov and Gyia Kancheli. Ivashkin is one of the three Russian cellists (after Mstislav Rostropovich and Natalia Gutman) for whom Alfred Schnittke wrote and dedicated his cello works. Alexander Ivashkin has made numerous award-winning and highly acclaimed recordings. He is Professor at the University of London, Director of the Centre for Russian Music in London and Artistic Director of the Adam Australasian International Cello Festival/Competition.
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 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 Conservatoire, 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.