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Alfred Schnittke - Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1985)

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Published on Jul 26, 2013

- Composer: Alfred Schnittke (24 November 1934 -- 3 August 1998)
- Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra
- Conductor: Mstislav Rostropovich
- Soloist: Yuri Bashmet
- Year of recording: 1991

Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, written in 1985.

00:00 - I. Largo; Allegro molto
05:09 - II. Allegro Molto
17:57 - III. Largo

One of Schnittke's grandest and finest compositions is his Viola Concerto, composed in the summer of 1985 for Yuri Bashmet. Especially in later years, it was Schnittke's habit when writing music for his friends to encode their name in musical letters into the score. This Viola Concerto is no exception. Very near the beginning of the work we hear the viola soloist spelling out the letters of Bashmet's name as a melody. That is, in a mixture of German and French notation: B -- A -- Es -- C -- H -- Mi or, in more familiar Anglo-Saxon notation: B flat -- A -- E flat -- C -- B natural -- E natural. From this tiny six note phrase, Schnittke builds almost the entire structure of this concerto, nearly forty minutes of music.

Schnittke's Viola Concerto has three movements, each longer than the last. The slow first movement, which lasts just over five minutes, has the character of an introduction, launching the main images and melodies of the whole piece. After an agonized opening declamation for the viola, in which the orchestra functions like an echo chamber sustaining every note the violist plays, we hear the eerie "Bashmet" melody harmonized by the orchestral strings with simple old-fashioned chords almost like church music. This is followed by a second and longer version of the declamation which culminates in a terrifying chord from the full orchestra (also made of the same six notes from Bashmet's name). Then a third idea appears, something like a delicate baroque cadence from a piece of eighteenth-century music by a composer like Bach.

The second movement -- Allegro molto -- begins with frantic arpeggiation from the soloist, like silent-movie music, almost as though the soloist were being hunted down by the orchestra. In the course of this very varied movement, Schnittke weaves in not only the three ideas from the first movement but a whole series of sometimes upsetting references to other quite different kinds of music: film-music, cheap dance-music, brass-band music, Soviet military marches and so on. Schnittke loved to do this kind of thing. He felt passionately that the musical rubbish of our lives needed to be drawn into serious works of art, that connections needed to be made between what he called the "high" and the "low".

The final movement, at a little over 15 minutes, is almost as long as the previous two movements put together. It is a spacious and desolate lament, in the course of which music from both the previous two movements reappears, but ruined and destroyed. Through a dreadfully bleak musical landscape, the viola soloist wanders as though searching for some echo or answer from the orchestra. At the very end, the music once again settles on the six notes from Bashmet's name, drawing from them the only traditional chord they contain -- a simple triad of A minor -- which the strings of the orchestra sustain and sustain, while around the chord the soloist gasps and whispers on a series of low dissonant pulsing notes, like the beating of a heart.

Shortly after he finished this concerto, Schnittke was staying in the Black Sea resort of Pitsunda when, on 21 July 1985, he had a severe stroke. Although he recovered partially, for the rest of his life his health was severely damaged. He later wrote movingly about the associations between this critical moment and the Viola Concerto:

"In a certain respect the piece has the character of a -- temporary -- farewell. For ten days after finishing work on it, I was placed in a situation from which there was hardly any way out. I could only slowly enter a second phase of life, a phase through which I am still passing. Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement)."

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