June 15, 2011

Alfred Schnittke

Judging the aesthetic merits of serious music written in the post-Stalin USSR is a tricky business.  Yes, official reprisals for ideologically unhealthy modernism no longer included a bullet in the back of the head.  But there still were credibly threatened layers of consequences ranging from the loss of professional employment opportunities all the way to the (unlikely but not impossible) confinement in some KGB-ran psychiatric clinic - at least for those whose art had a significant socio-political dimension.  So, talentless hacks and political lackeys aside, I never can feel certain about the extent to which a Soviet artist's output is a compromise between the forward pull of his creative ambitions and the system's backward yanking on his leash.

Hence my ambivalence toward Schnittke's music.  I think there is a considerable but not fully realized talent behind the notes, and I've worked quite hard on trying to hear past the things that rub me the wrong way.  Yet despite my efforts, and despite my sympathy for Schnittke's predicament as a Soviet composer, I still do not respond to his music.  Worse, I actually dislike most of it.  Whether in the Darmstadt-flavored early Violin Concerto No.2, or in the simplistically cinematic middle period Concerto for Piano and Strings, or in the late String Trio with its crude allusions to minimalism - the music has a pervasive and (to me) unpleasant flavor of faux originality, as if the composer is trying to hide himself behind a carefully designed and thoroughly fake musical personality.  Attaching to this flavor the academic-sounding name polystylism does nothing to change my impression.


sasha said...

Wonderful forward to this post (of course no less than I've come to expect from your erudite pen!)..MMmm Yes ditto re: Schnittke..I have found myself drawn towards the 'Cello Concerto No.2; In Memoriam' recording (Rostropovich/Ozawa)..Particularly the slow movements in the concerto which have something hypnotic and magical about them..But the Concerto Grosso series? Nah, got nothing from the one's I've heard..And I've worked my way through several of the symphonies with a similar response..Interesting to hear if these works, which are unknown to me, ignite any passion in me to further investigate the man's work..Many thanks.

sasha said...

Wow yea 2nd violin concerto 1966 is a wild piece isn't it? Everything from the contemplative to bedlam..And the ending is just magical..With that sudden cut off..Great recording..Look forward to listening to the later works now..Many thanks.