CLASSICAL MUSIC / It's his party, but he'll cry off if he wants to
Sunday 27 March 1994
Sixty this year, Schnittke is a grateful candidate for retrospection. His output is large and diverse, and although the Academy's programme concentrated on the core works of the 1970s, it took in early forays into modernism and several UK premieres - including the 1980 Gogol suite, a lightweight orchestral fantasy that makes a useful point of entry into Schnittke's sound world. And what is this world? It's a Rocky Horror empire suspended between past and present, sophistication and banality, the sublime and the grotesque, where the same score might originate an idea in the form of a maudlin cafe-piano solo, insert some jokily surreal quotations, add a rock guitar and drum set, and then marshal the whole thing into a regimented piece of psuedo-
baroque. The technical term is polystylism, and the principal objective seems to be to integrate the unintegratable. This is a task Schnittke tackles with particular success in Concerto Grosso No 1, which opened the Academy's festival and featured one of its most gifted current students, violinist Daniel Hope. Flamboyant but evasive, hard- to-pin-down music, it came off with impressive flair.
It's also music that lends itself to 'explanation'. You can hear Schnittke's patchwork technique as the multi-cultural collecting instinct of a composer who, although a Russian convert to Catholicism, was born in Vienna of German-Jewish parents. You can also hear it as the geo-political yearning of a man who has spent most of his life confined to barracks by Soviet socialism. Or as a challenge to the severity of modernism, building an alternative newness from the listener-friendly materials of old regimes. Or, indeed, as plain old Mahlerian neurosis: nostalgia self-defensively tempered by sarcasm, and looking back with what Pierre Boulez calls an X-ray vision that
exposes not the flesh of the past but its rattling bones.
Whatever line you take on Schnittke, there is no denying that his work is fascinating and attractive. My abiding reservation, though, concerns its substance: the more you hear of it in a packaged festival, the more it suggests a kind of musical transvestism. The frocks come out of the wardrobe of history with too rapid a turnover to be entirely credible.
Peter Maxwell Davies is also 60 this year, and also keeps a few frocks in his wardrobe (if he'll pardon my saying so). There are many Maxwell Davies scores that rehabilitate the music of the past; but they do it, I think, with a greater depth of seriousness than Schnittke - and never deeper than in the Second Fantasia on John Taverner's 'In Nomine' which Davies himself conducted as part of a programme of his works with the RPO at the South Bank. The Second Fantasia is a Sixties classic, and like many Davies scores it has two skins - an outer surface that contains an inner, almost secret substance - although in the Fantasia the secret escapes at the very start (it is the borrowing from Taverner) before the complex argument of the piece gets wrapped around it. In the following clarinet concerto, the secret is held back until the very end - when it turns out to be a Scottish folk tune that emerges with radiance (and some relief) in the final bars. And it's the same in Orkney Wedding with Sunrise: a pop piece whose jokey narrative resolves, spectacularly, into music theatre, with the entrance of a Scottish piper in full regalia. On Wednesday the piper - one George MacIlwham, who seems to make a career out of the piece - strode through the hall with an endearing panache that wiped the frowns off the faces of the most hardened avant-gardists.
Mr MacIlwham would have been an asset on Monday at the QEH when Edward Downes conducted the Docklands Sinfonietta in the world premiere of Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin. It should have been memorable but wasn't. In case you think there's some mistake here, I should say that I do mean Prokofiev's Eugene Onegin and not Tchaikovsky's. Written in 1936 as part of a Pushkin series (the other pieces were Boris Godunov and Queen of Spades) it was a risky undertaking, because all these works were deathlessly associated in the public mind with other composers. Prokofiev himself acknowledged it as a thankless task. So it was - none of the pieces was ever performed.
But the intention was to produce something notably different from the previous settings. So, in Onegin, he concentrated on the scenes that Tchaikovsky ignored, and tried to recapture the ironic tone of Pushkin's verse. The result was a melodrama, a fusion of dramatised speech and music. As Monday's performance proved, it sounds like an adult counterpart to Peter and the Wolf which was written in the same year, in a similar stylistic voice, but with a greater level of invention.
And there you have the problem with Prokofiev's Onegin - it's thin. There is one attractively antiseptic waltz, but most of the music is disengaged from the story. Timothy West's staged adaptation of the text was also less than riveting. All it proved was that Charles Johnston's widely admired English translation of Onegin sounds, when read aloud, like Rupert Bear couplets, stuck forever in the present tense. 'No doubt about it, it's Eugene / How long has he been on the scene?' was typical. However you applaud the initiative of Downes and the Docklands players for giving this a try, you'll probably agree that it's not worth perpetuating on disc. Otherwise, you'll be pleased to find it on the Chandos label at Christmas.
Finally a brief tribute to Donald Swann who died this week after a long illness, which he endured with characteristic fortitude and saintly good humour. He will always be remembered for his cabaret songs, with their throwaway brilliance and effortless pastiche. Swann was a masterful pasticheur, at his best in numbers like the 'Guide to Britten' (not warmly received by Britten himself). But there was an underlying sense of purpose in Donald's output. When his partnership with Michael Flanders ended, he sat at home in Battersea writing chamber operas that never quite worked, but which contained a kind of epic heroism (and greatness of heart) within their small scale. And no one who loved the serious Flanders and Swann songs, like the radiantly melancholic 'Slow Train', will be surprised to know that Swann wrote several excellent cycles to texts that deserve an honourable place in the history of British song. His music meant a lot to me and I shall miss him.
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