Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Alfred Schnittke: Between Two Worlds @ Southbank Centre, London

15 November - 1 December 2009


Between Two Worlds, a two week festival of the works of Alfred Schnittke (1934-89), has been an opportunity to experience what a wonderfully entertaining composer he was.

Artistically-directed by Vladimir Jurowski, the series featured a wide range of Russian artists, alongside the best of British youth, with valuable contributions from students at the Royal College of Music.

Many of Schnittke’s works are tinged with theatricality but it’s often quite tentative. Even his huge opera The History of Dr Johann Faust, receiving only its second performance after the 1995 Hamburg premiere, as the first major concert of the series (albeit in heavily truncated form), lacks any great dramatic weight, showing its origins (in the final act at least) as an earlier cantata.

Two outstanding pieces, though, did show theatrical acuity: Three Scenes, a delicious little piece of absurdity, and the Kandinsky-inspired The Yellow Sound. The first, only 17 minutes in length and described as “a short sketch for opera”, saw a whole pack of percussionists hovering around the vibraphone, like so many crows over a tasty bit of road-kill, swooping in periodically for a peck, while soprano Allison Bell defied vocal gravity offstage. When she did appear, it was to the self-accompaniment of a coffee-grinder.

The Yellow Sound, a more substantial piece, has a libretto culled from Vassily Kandinsky, the Russian expressionist, and was here, like the earlier performance of the Faust opera, directed by Annabel Arden. And beautifully so: Bell, again, appeared as an unexpected percussionist before floating around the platform, in and out of the players (and the shrieking, clucking chorus who hang in the background), or shooting a yellow follow spot in all directions. Ian Scott’s superb lighting added bags of atmosphere.

Not every piece played was of the highest standard. One concert began with Five Aphorisms, unfortunately not nearly aphoristic enough five clunky piano sketches interspersed with clunkier verses by Joseph Brodksy, delivered lethargically, indeed unintelligibly, in an actorish drawl by Timothy Ackroyd.

It’s good to see that Schnittke is not a composer who ignored that under-valued solo instrument, the viola (there are a number of major works featuring it) but Monologue was another low-key opener.

It was immediately followed by a real highlight the astonishingly exciting Concerto for Piano and Strings, with Boris Petrushanksy as soloist (a real star of the full-day Sunday, performing no fewer than five major works). He was joined in the gorgeous First Sonata for violin and piano by the excellent Dmitry Sitkovetsky. It was another work of tremendous virtuosity that helped turn this writer from a casual admirer of the composer to something more avid.

The Peer Gynt Epilogue, drawn from the full-length ballet and arranged for cello, piano and chorus on tape, was another highly impressive piece.

Missing from the festival was any in-depth exploration of Schnittke’s symphonic output (he wrote ten symphonies, including the so-called No. 0), with just the Third on offer here. Beginning with what sounds dangerously like an out-and-out parody of Wagner (with strong hints of Bruckner), this mighty piece then flies off in all directions, referencing as many different musical styles as you can think of.

I’m not sure at all that it’s great music but Schnittke certainly keeps us entertained throughout the symphony’s Mahlerian length. It was here accompanied by other works in which earlier forms lurk: Webern’s Passacaglia, Magnus Lindberg’s Chorale and Berg’s luscious Violin Concerto, gorgeously played by Leonidas Kavakos.

Free events included performances of the String Quartet No.3, the curious Concerto for Electric Instruments and the wonderful Piano Quintet, with several off-site concerts held at the Royal College of Music.

A brooding presence throughout the festival was mastermind Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted many of the concerts and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The bass drum and cymbal player in Three Scenes, looking like a street corner one-man band, was no other than he and the joyous fragments Music to an Imagined Play ended with the glorious sight of Mr Jurowski playing the comb and paper. Like so much of Schnittke’s music, it was a wonderful subversion of our expectations and preconceptions.

There are three more events in the festival: on Saturday 28 November Schnittke’s Cello Concerto 2 plus a screening of the film The Agony and on Tuesday 1 December his String Trio.



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