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 Recording of the Week  Schnittke from Vladimir Jurowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin

Something slightly more unusual this week, as Vladimir Jurowski conducts the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in a new recording of Symphony No. 3 by the twentieth-century Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke. The piece was commissioned for the ceremonial opening of the new Gewandhaus in Leipzig, and was premiered there in November 1981. Presumably as a response to the esteemed history of the venue (the Gewandhausorchester can claim Felix Mendelssohn amongst its previous music directors), Schnittke took the opportunity to present a kind of tribute to German music past and present, as viewed through a Soviet lens.

Vladimir Jurowski
Vladimir Jurowski

As such, the piece apparently contains musical references to the names of twenty-two German composers, from Schütz and Bach to Henze and Stockhausen, using letters from their names as musical notes. As an extension of this, the beginning of the piece seems to evoke the opening of Wagner’s Das Rheingold: it’s a murky and lugubrious start, where the whole feeling is of a primordial slime out of which notes gradually emerge. One by one the strings take up the same melodic figure in canon, starting with the bottom double bass and working up through the entire section to end with the leader of the orchestra. It’s an extraordinary effect, and something that Schnittke has employed in other pieces of his, for example, the first Concerto Grosso, where in one movement all twelve violins play the same Toccata theme a quaver after one another!

This attempt to present something of a potted history of German music allows Schnittke to employ the compositional technique for which he is perhaps best known, namely polystylism. As its name suggests, this involves throwing together multiple styles into the same piece, with the theory being that if the material of the different sections is strong enough, it doesn't matter if they match, they will go together.

While no doubt musicologists might complain that this means the piece ends up lacking any kind of unifying form, I must admit that in performance it makes for a highly entertaining listen, and that’s certainly the case here. Jurowski and his players are keen to bring out every weird, wonderful and wacky shift: huge great thundering outbursts from the brass section sit alongside a section for solo piano that is a pastiche of a Mozart sonata. Similarly, the end of the first movement, with its mighty brass chords that evoke both Messiaen’s Turangalîla and something out of a Jerry Goldsmith film score, moves straight into the second movement which, had I heard it “blind”, would have had me convinced it was from a long-lost Shostakovich symphony!

The orchestra for this is absolutely huge (the booklet note claims one hundred and eleven musicians for this recording): as well as the usual orchestral suspects (including quadruple woodwind and a string section of sixty-six players), the piece also calls for two harps, piano, harpsichord, celeste, organ, electric guitar, and bass guitar! While often just adding a bit of spice to the bass line in places, the sound of the guitar is put to striking use at the start of the third movement, where the particular intervals used conjure up a kind of twisted, ghoulish version of the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

It’s the willingness to embrace this eclectic mix that for me is the success of this recording; although frequently baffled and staggered at the constant shifts from one idea to the next, I was completely sold on the piece by the commitment and virtuoso performance of the musicians. Great fun indeed, and well worth a listen!

Schnittke: Symphony No. 3

Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Vladimir Jurowski

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