Recorded June 2000
Joining together Schnittke's piano quintet with Shostakovich's last string quartet on a single disc was inspired. Both works were composed in the mid-'70s in the U.S.S.R., but more importantly, both works are intimately concerned with dying and death: Schnittke wrote his piano quintet on the death of his mother and Shostakovich wrote his last string quartet the summer before he himself died. But while the works have many things in common - a tonal language that moves freely from consonance to dissonance and an emotional intensity that can grow almost unbearable - there is one fundamental difference between them: Schnittke's is a public work of mourning and consolation while Shostakovich's is a private work that is not so much about dying as it itself enacts the processes of dying. In this 2002 recording of the quintet and the quartet, the Keller Quartet is joined by pianist Aleksei Lubimov in performances of immense strength and awful power. The Keller is a superlative young quartet whose severe tone and austere colors are wonderfully appropriate for the music. Lubimov is an affecting pianist whose playing brings tremendous depth and gravity to the quintet. Indeed, Lubimov and the Keller's performance of the quintet may be the most affecting ever recorded, moving from grief through mourning to comfort and consolation. While the Keller Quartet is equally well performed, its interpretation may be too dramatic and demonstrative for some listeners, making too public a process that is fundamentally private. But even those listeners will still be deeply moved by their anguished performance. ECM's sound is completely transparent and thoroughly unobtrusive.
Schnittke's Piano Quintet and Shostakovich's final composition, the 15th String Quartet: crucially important works from the early 1970s whose emphasis on self-expression seems to prefigure an entire landscape of post-Soviet music. Superbly interpreted by the always adventurous Keller Quartet - joined by Alexei Lubimov for the Schnittke.
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Music by Alfred Schnittke and Dmitri Shostakovich
Both good and bad times sing. Extreme hardship can become a powerful incentive for artistic productivity. Admittedly, the Psalmist's expression of despair sounds more like a howl than a song:"From the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord." As if they were magic words, the "De profundis" takes on palpable form in the Christian liturgy. Words and encouragement can do little to help the tormented soul. The suffering artistic subject helps himself through his work. Those who wrest masterpieces from physical and mental disaster, who make the ostensibly impossible possible, are admired and revered. Jean Sibelius composed his most impressive work, the Fourth Symphony, in a phase of extreme psychological tension, indeed anguish - but never equalled its expressive intensity and drive in more settled periods of his life. Then there was the composer almost all of whose works were an outcome and chronicle of a terrible (arthritic) disorder: Allan Pettersson, with his seventeen symphonies. And it was with amazement and incredulous admiration that the world took note of Alfred Schnittke's burst of productivity following the composer's first stroke at the age of fifty-one. Although further strokes followed, they could not inhibit the creative momentum that drove him for the remaining thirteen years of his life, until his death in 1998. Semi-paralysed and unable to speak, he wrote his last works (among them the Ninth Symphony) with his still usable left hand - probably quite a unique example of artistic drive defying sheer physical impossibility (though in old age the semi-paralysed Matisse, too, continued to create major works, now with a particular predilection for huge formats). A generation before Schnittke, it had been Dmitri Shostakovich who battled against inner and outer demons; life in a dictatorship made him ill, and only as he aged and suffered did he find the inner strength that expressed itself in his music as a moment of liberation and release of tension.
Music draws on the unconscious and instinctive, but gains insistence with the growth of modern demands on consciousness. Alfred Schnittke, born in the Volga German Republic of the Soviet Union in 1934, did not number among those who respected an approved canon of beauty. That he was a priori an outsider on the Soviet cultural scene was surely due in part to his German background. Shortly after the war, his father was sent to Vienna in a professional capacity, and young Alfred received private music lessons there between 1946 and 1948. This early experience of "cosmopolitanism" was impossible for him to shake off when he returned home. After studying in Moscow, he began making a name for himself as a composer in the Sixties. But he was not allowed to travel to the West again until 1977. It was above all interpreters like Gidon Kremer and Gennadi Roshdestvensky who brought his music to audiences outside the Soviet Union. Because Schnittke's idiosyncratic stylistic approach was viewed with suspicion for not conforming to official artistic doctrine, the composer repeatedly encountered obstacles and bans on the performance of his works. Like Shostakovich, Schnittke found the cinema a way out; his over sixty film scores provided a much-needed addition to his otherwise meagre income. By the time Schnittke settled in Hamburg in 1991, he had gained an international reputation. He died there on 3 August 1998, after suffering his fifth stroke. Thousands attended his funeral in Moscow the following week. Finally Schnittke had been recognised as a greatalmost popular, artist in his own homeland.
Schnittke himself described the signature trait of his music as "po-lystylism". Such twentieth-century composers as Ernst Krenek had already demonstrated Protean shifts in idiom from work to work. But Schnittke's stylistic flexibility was of a completely different nature: it operated by way of idiomatic irritation, discontinuity, diversification within single works, abrupt changes in tone and the total abandonment of formal consistency. The "logic" of a work resulted from an overarching poetological idea or cohesiveness of expression. The bringing together of far and near - the reciprocal illumination of extremes - also took place via musical quotations or quotation-like formulations. The German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann achieved a similarly shocking form of dramatisation by integrating "found objects". But they always remain alien bodies, anti-bodies recognisable in a consistently articulated atonal diction. For Schnittke, atonality is never a predominant principle. His polystylistic interpenetration is more comprehensive, with clefts and chasms yielding pride of place to unexpected connections, correspondences and vexations. And yet Schnittke's music can be highly contrastive and wild, like a furioso of fragmented, jarring episodes. However, one quickly notices that this is no concatenation of random elements in the fashionably superficial "postmodernist" vein (although in the profoundest sense of the word,"postmodern" is an apt description of Schnittke, for he was a late-twentieth-century man who built credibly on the premises of Modernism). This implies a further developmental current in Schnittke's music, one that manifests itself ever more distinctly and emerges as a formative influence in his late, affliction-ridden phase: the attempt to produce music of "uniform tension"(Schnitt-ke), with conflict and disparity ceding to equanimity, submissiveness, quiet contemplation and peace. This Schnittke joins the ranks of composers of very different intellectual background but similar distinction: Morton Feldman, Josef Matthias Hauer and the late Luigi Nono.
Elements of "uniform tension"can already be found in some of Schnittke's earlier compositions, one of which is the Piano Quintet written between 1972 and 1976. As many of Schnittke's most substantial works were composed very quickly, the long period he spent on the Quintet suggests that it was something special. The work was triggered by the death of Schnittke's mother, who suffered a fatal stroke on a Moscow street. Grief is the underlying emotion of the piece, but it is coupled with an exquisite, inexpressible tenderness. The fragile, crystalline motif with which the piano begins is like a gently luminous path of memory leading to the mysteries of a deeply affectionate relationship. Although the nostalgic character of the music is evident, there is no trace of sentimentality here. Nor is there in the five interlocking parts of the hovering second episode: revolving around a b-a-c-h motif,"ln Tempo di Valse" articulates itself in a penumbra of gentle indeterminacy, precluding virtually any expressly motoric contouring. What follows is written with an ear for simplicity and transparency of texture; but before the serene ending fades away, incandescent, wraithlike figures break in-nightmarish incantations intruding on the stream of memories and showing the other, dark side of grief. The piece is undoubtedly intended to record what has been lost and to deny loss: the sound material occasionally evokes a feeling of deja vu, of recognising something familiar. And yet the sensitivity and discretion with which Schnittke shapes "regained" time (Proust) unmistakably suggests the imaginary quality of recapturing the past. Grief does not turn outwards (as it does in Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Requiem); it remains in an objectified but almost diary-like sphere of intimacy. The listener is alone as he participates in another's (chamber-musically codified) solitary grief.
Schnittke's Piano Quintet might also be interpreted as a prefiguration of his late work because, in the suffering and death of his mother, the composer foreshadows his own fatal illness. "Late work" is, of course, a relative term. Leos Janacek owes his immense cultural status almost exclusively to his operas, the fruits of the last ten years of his life (most of them composed when he was over seventy). Unlike Richard Strauss, creator of a very resolute "late work" far removed from the pace, sparkle and opulence of the enormous oeuvre that preceded it. The physiognomy of Shostakovich's career was rounded out by a similarly idiosyncratic phase of works of "old age", set apart from the rest of his music. And it was what made him one of the most important composers of his century. But Shostakovich grew old before his time: the pellucid, crystalline works regarded as his late oeuvre were composed between the ages of barely sixty and sixty-nine. The origins of this productivity were, so to speak, rooted in a dilemma: as political constraints fell away and the mature, celebrated artist's personal freedom grew, his physical suffering, brought on by frighteningly failing health, multiplied. Now that the external threat had been (more or less) overcome, it was replaced by a final, inner threat - death. And Shostakovich's music changed in consequence: it became more personal, more sovereign, but could never lead him to a safe haven of peace. Nor did resignation take hold, perpetually held in check as it was by burning ambition and an unquenchable thirst to communicate. Fascinated by the model of Johann Sebastian Bach, in his final years Shostakovich was still planning a gigantic cycle of twenty-four string quartets moving through all the major and minor keys (in analogy to the Well-Tempered Clavier). It never came to that. Shostakovich's fifteenth and final string quartet was premiered in Leningrad in November 1974, some six months before the composer's death.
While Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies were spread quite evenly across all periods of the composer's life, substantially mirroring his development, the likewise fifteen string quartets are an entirely different matter. The first was not written until 1938, and most of the rest were produced after the war. This is when chamber music began assuming increasing significance for him. As we have already mentioned, the finality of the 15th Quartet was by no means part of some larger design.
Yet it is eminently clear that,"under the guise of infinity", it nonetheless accords with our idea of a typical "last" work of the genre. The most striking feature of the piece is the consistently subdued character of the tempi of the six uninterrupted movements. Though there is no record of it, in taking this highly unconventional approach, the composer may well have been thinking of Haydn's famous late work for string quartet. The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, which consists of eight slow movements followed by a stunning Presto finale ("The Earthquake"). Shostakovich's quartet, too, explores strongly contrasting content in the context of a single, sustained, sombre mood, which is spun out most expansively in the introductory "Elegy". The brooding contemplative-ness is disturbed by the "stinging" sounds of the single instruments, which can be perceived quite realistically as attacks of pain (similar"ex-tra-musically" motivated sonic events in the shape of aggressive pain signals can be found in Smetana's string quartet From My Life and in Schoenberg's String Trio). The requiem character is at its most pervasive in the fifth movement ("Funeral March"), where the tempo slackens and begins to falter. It is rare for the music of the late Shostakovich to end in unremitting gloom, and in the 15th Quartet, the epilogue provides a glimmer of light, a feeling of finally being able to exhale.
Alfred Schnittke felt a strong kinship with the late Shostakovich in particular. Like many of his fellow artists in the Soviet Union, Schnittke was a highly religious man. Shostakovich, who started out as an ardent Communist and gradually descended into ever more disillusioned scepticism, remained an atheist throughout his life. But this did not bar him from the difficult path to inner tranquillity. Both Schnittke's Piano Quintet and Shostakovich's 15th String Quartet are expressions of the "De Profundis"that conquers deep despair to achieve serene consolation.
- Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich
Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (translation)