Nine symphonies, nine. The number looms like a
mementomori 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.
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.
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.
ECM Records wages a continuous and valuable invasion into unknown
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.