Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Me, in a Nutshell

So the other night my friend gave a piano recital, and afterwards we all went out for drinks at a well-loved dive nearby—my friend, his friends, students and teacher, and his teacher's family. One of the students asked, as anyone in his situation must be tempted to do (but never has the nerve to ask so baldly), of my friend's Russian emigré teacher: Tell us about Alfred Schnittke! A pause. Hmm. He wasn't sure how to respond, at first, but quickly recovered and gave us a little sketch. Actually, Schnittke changed a great deal over the course of his life, the pleasant young composer, witty and effervescent, gradually becoming, after a series of strokes, much "darker"—more spiritual, but also less trusting. Embarrassed as I'd been to hear the question aloud, I drank in every word of the answer, fascinated and thrilled. The question then went around the table: What's your favorite piece by Schnittke? Well, I said, I love the whole body of work, I love that young trickster Schnittke, a great, rare musical wit, but perhaps even more than that, I love the older Schnittke, the Schnittke of the Penitential Psalms and even more than that the Choir Concerto. When he stopped kidding around entirely, and distilled his music down to pure passion and terror, he wrote some of the most stunningly expressive pieces in the repertoire. I was shoveling fries in my face the whole time I was saying this, by the way. My friend picked the Viola Concerto—"performed by Kim Kashkashian!" He'd seen her play it live. I nodded seriously. Kashkashian's was my own first recording of the concerto, and it's a fine one, beautifully recorded (of course it is; it's on ECM) and brilliantly played. Kashkashian is a magnificently sensitive, precise performer. "But the best recording," I averred, "is Yuri Bashmet. Not the RCA recording—which is honestly a little lifeless—but the one he did before that, his old Soviet recording. I think so much of his character as a performer is written into the piece... those strange, quick shifts in color..." My friend's teacher nodded. "Schnittke always wrote with the personality of the performer in mind." Well. Once home, quite pleased with myself for having discussed a favorite composer's music so brilliantly with someone who actually knew him, I headed straight to the music shelf to take down and listen to Bashmet's Soviet recording of the Viola Concerto. It wasn't there. "JoJo, where's the other Bashmet recording of the Schnittke Viola Concerto?" JoJo pointed out that we did not, in fact, own this CD, and never had. "Are you sure?" Yes. And it began to dawn on me that I had never actually heard the recording I had defended so specifically and vigorously just an hour before. I had seen it at the store and then imagined I had heard it, or rather forgotten that I had not, and had instead recalled in great detail what the recording sounded like (a little off-balance, a little out-of-control, but in a way that heightened the musical drama instead of obscuring it), to the extent that it had actually become my favorite rendition of the piece, without my even hearing so much as a note. Unbeknownst to everyone, including myself, everything I had said that night had been one hundred per-cent bullshit. Epilogue: I went ahead and bought the record, just now. I decided I'd better. And hey, turns out it's fantastic—I think it might even be my favorite recording of the piece.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Daniel,

You never went to the pub after the concert!


February 26, 2008 at 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Either way you shouldn't feel so bad. You knew that the recording existed so perhaps you did have it at some time. Then again you must have heard the performance from a friend or else in passing somewhere. You were not speaking bull, but rather from a place from which you honestly thought that you had experienced something. You were mistaken about where you heard the album not that you hadn't heard it at all. Someone who was speaking bull would have had a conscience awareness that they hadn't a clue about what they where talking about. Cut yourself some slack OK?

Speaking about Schnittke can anyone locate a recording of his Trio concerto with Slava, Kremer and Bashmet? Definitive performances that were written after the performers!

February 26, 2008 at 2:12 PM  
Blogger minim said...

But such elegant bullshit! You had me totally convinced. Hah! And now that it's turned out so good, could you maybe pass on label/conductor/orchestra info? It's been too long since I've listened to Schnittke...

February 26, 2008 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Yeah, I'm still trying to figure out one of those Andrew Sullivan-type deals where I get paid to recommend specific products, but nothin' yet, so I will not get a commission for pointing you to:

the Schnittke Concerto "For Three"
and the Schnittke Viola Concerto

both with Yuri B. Actually the reissue I just bought is this one, but I think the reason that the price on Moscow Studio Archives discs has dropped is that they've begun printing very, very cheap discs. The one I got looks like a CD-R and gave my CD player at work a lot of guff. (Both pairings, each featuring Natalia Gutman, are excellent; the Concerto Grosso #2 is full of insane surprises, Gutman completely loses control at the climax of the Cello Concerto #1, and she's the dedicatee of both works.) The triple concerto is one of ArkivMusic's print-on-demand titles.

February 26, 2008 at 7:12 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

You were clearly channeling something you knew to be true albeit without a basis in experience. Nothing wrong with tapping into your spiritual guides. (no, this is not sarcasm)

RE: Schnittke...My pick would be Psalms of Repentance.

February 26, 2008 at 8:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, a woman loses control of the climax...go figure.

February 26, 2008 at 10:23 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

OMG, Gwyneth, inappropriate.

Marcus, sounds like we're on the same wavelength. Thing is, what I love about the Penitential Psalms/Psalms of Repentance is, I think, the same thing that makes me love the polystylistic works.

Schnittke talked about being inspired by "sonata form" (as defined by... Webern? Too lazy to look it up) in the sense of a contrast between "strict" and "free" development of materials, which figures in those 70s works as the alternation between atonal and tonal passages, respectively. It reminds me of Berg's serial "tonality," the way that a certain debt will seem to be incurred by stringing together those brief, lucid triadic harmonies, which then has to be repaid in crushing dissonances.

So when I hear Schnittke's late, a cappella choral music, I think this notion persists on some level, that the tonality of the music is merely provisional. It all seems ready to collapse into noise and chaos at any moment, even if it never quite happens. Heartbreaking stuff.

February 27, 2008 at 3:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who the heck is Gwyneth? I fail to see the connection. Sorry for the cheap laugh. It was out there for the taking. Still I apologize.

Is anyone else moved by "Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief?" It was a transcription of some of his songs for the Kronos Quartet.

February 27, 2008 at 3:19 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...


I agree with everything you said and love the way you write about music like that. Musicologically informed and living at the same time. "Heartbreaking stuff" indeed!

When I listen to Repentance (alas never heard it live) its not only tonality that is provisional but reality itself, without the feeling that there are any lifelines to grab onto. One of the reasons I love it so much.

February 28, 2008 at 10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, he wasn't all gloom and doom. He had a melancholy disposition for sure. Who wouldn't have one given the environment one had to work in. I'm tired of hearing that most Soviet bloc composers where manic depressed. Take a look at his sonata in the older style. Pure more or less joy form beginning to end. And not a bad tune to boot!

February 28, 2008 at 12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally I think his "Concerto for Accordion and Orchestra" is his best work by far except perhaps "Poem about Space".

February 29, 2008 at 6:49 PM  

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