Alfred Schnittke

Schnittke: Symphony No. 9
Raskatov: Nunc Dimittis

Dennis Russell Davies / Dresden Philharmonie, ECM


Nine symphonies, nine. The number looms like a memento mori across the symphonic landscape. Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) faced the dire deadline as of a work apart: an "accelerando of time," as he described it to his wife Ilina during its time of gestation. In cannot be easy, in any era, to wield a pen across the shadows of history's great Ninesters: Mahler, Bruckner and the gang. The controversial Russian-German, whose voluminous heritage is still argued and rejected in some circles, still only gradually comes into his own. A splendid new ECM disc should help.

Schnittke cut a memorable figure. His star rose quickly in post-Glasnost days. His remarkable gift for the nimble satire enhanced the impact of a variegated repertory; he became one of the heroes of his country's musical emergence, a darkened legacy blending throbbing, grueling tragic outburst and grinning satire. His first American audiences, myself included, watched with delight as, on a Sunday in 1988, this diminutive, shriveled figure bounded down the aisle of Boston's Cathedral to acknowledge plaudits for his mystical, crabbed Fourth Symphony. He relished his American connections, and expressed his own admiration for the music of Charles Ives. The American press had welcomed him warmly, even in its blinking reception accorded the gloriously eccentric First Symphony, a wildly hyperactive pastiche that strode, roughly and gloriously, over the staid precincts of Boston's Symphony Hall.

No stylistic gap yawns more broadly than the one that separates that wild and woolly First Symphony from this jagged, inward-looking Ninth that caps the sequence of orchestral masterworks with music toothing and tortured, fragmented and haunting. Schnittke's Ninth proposes a downward path at the start, and pursues it determinedly for its half-hour duration. Its language is stern and sometimes bitter; you may detect an occasional rub against the grotesquery of late Mahler. Some of the serrated lines may evoke the lightning flashes in a Kandinsky abstraction. The impression emerges of a master of symphony whom we haven't yet taken seriously enough.

Filling out the disc, and greatly enhancing its impact, is a setting by a Schnittke colleague, Alexander Raskatov, a 20-minute nunc dimittis from the Mass for the Dead, gorgeously resonant in Dresden's Frauenkirche.

Brave, fearless ECM Records wages a continuous and valuable invasion into unknown territory, including a shadowy repertory of Russian symphonies, still awaiting discovery, by such little-known creators of deserving masterworks as Valentin Silvestrov, Gavrail Popov and the aforementioned Raskatov. With their handsome, modest black-and-white photo documentation and low-key promotion, ECM's discs remain a model of how a recording industry can serve its culture.

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