About this Recording
8.554465 - SCHNITTKE: Cello Concerto / Stille Musik / Cello Sonata

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)
Cello Concerto (1986)
Stille Musik (1979)
Sonata for violoncello and piano (1978)

The Russian composer Alfred Schnittke was born in 1934, the son of a journalist of Lithuanian-Jewish origin and a mother who taught German. His birth place, Engels, was the former capital of the Volga Republic, but he began his real musical education in Vienna, where his father worked for two years from 1946 until 1948, editing a Soviet Army newspaper. There followed a period at the October Revolution Music Academy in Moscow and further study at the Moscow Conservatory, with lessons in instrumentation with Nikolay Rakov and counterpoint and composition with Yevgeny Golubev. He completed his work as a postgraduate student in 1961 and for the next ten years taught at the Conservatory, before embarking on a free­lance career in Moscow in 1972. Changes in cultural policy in the Soviet Union later enabled Schnittke to consolidate his international position as one of the leading composers of the later twentieth century, emphasized by his close association with the most distinguished performers. Throughout his career he showed a particular interest in string textures, from the time of his first Violin Concerto, written in 1957 and revised six years later, to later work for the viola, the Viola Concerto of 1985 and the Monologue for Viola and Strings, written in 1989. More recent compositions have included additions to his Concerti Grossi, the sixth of which, for violin, piano and orchestra, was completed in 1993, with a Concerto for Three, calling for violin, viola and cello with an instrumental ensemble, published in 1995, to be given an authoritative performance by musicians particularly associated with his work, the violinist Gidon Kremer, the viola-player Yuri Bashmet and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

In 1989, with political changes in Russia, Schnittke was able to accept the position of Professor of Composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschule, but his deteriorating health, after a stroke he had suffered in 1985, made composition a slow process, leading, in 1994, to a fourth stroke that prevented him from speaking or writing. He had, however, been able to complete his Eighth Symphony in that year. He was prolific as a composer, writing a quantity of music that found a ready audience outside the Soviet Union, particularly after 1989, when his work was made more widely known abroad. In an interview in 1977 he explained his method of working, allowing six or seven months in the year for composition for films, leaving a few months for his own work. He went on to explain the then available possibilities provided by television and radio for hearing a wide variety of music, enabling him to live in what he described as an Ives atmosphere. Often allusive in style, his work might shock, as in the innovative cadenza he provided for the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the mimed cadenza for his own Fourth Violin Concerto, and he drew on wide terms of reference and sources of inspiration, as in his First Symphony, with its reversal of the procedures of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, and works that refer obliquely and directly to Handel, Mozart, Paganini and many others, part of the whole body of music that he regarded as a complete entity, essentially interconnected, Schnittke died on 3rd August 1998.

On his First Cello Concerto Schnittke explained that the idea had long been in his mind. In the summer of 1985 he made his first rough sketches, before a serious interruption to his work. On the night of 22nd / 23rd July he suffered a stroke and spent twenty days in a coma, declared clinically dead on three occasions. The power of speech returned slowly, at first only in German, the German of the Volga district of his childhood. By 11th August he had regained consciousness, but at first half dreaming of war-time or of adventures in the North, a region he had never visited. He gradually returned to a normal life and to his work, in particular the Cello Concerto, which he started to write at the end of October, as if it had already been formed in his mind. The concerto was planned in three movements. The first of these, marked Pesante moderato, strictly constructed, the second, marked Largo, slow and expressive and the third, Allegro vivace, depicting a wild, dancing world. When the third movement was half finished, he had the idea of writing a fourth. The idea was not a new one, but he did not know that this belonged to the Cello Concerto, until it suddenly occurred to him, as the other movements neared completion. The whole work, in fact, he saw as directed towards the fourth movement, in which its essence is expressed.

Stille Masik, for violin and cello, was written in 1979 and offers in the main music of great tranquility, as its title suggests. Nevertheless there are occasional moments of tense dissonance and strong chordal passages. A rhapsodic work, Stille Musik offers a study in tension and relaxation, the basis of musical composition.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano was written in 1978. In three movements, it provides a valuable addition to the cello repertoire, exploiting the qualities and possibilities of the instrument in an idiomatic musical language, allusive and by turns of harsh intensity or poignant in its lyricism. The meditative first movement is followed by a cello moto perpetuo, accompanied initially by the abrupt interjections of the piano, which later assumes a rôle that recalls the music of Prokofiev. The third movement is one of alternately impassioned and brooding melancholy, fading, in its conclusion to an eerie whisper.

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