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'Faust Cantata' at the BBC Schnittke Festival
in London's Barbican Centre


Polystylism, the catch-word of postmodernism, has always been the feature most often singled out as characteristic of the music of Alfred Schnittke. Yet rather than the web of allusions or styles themselves, it is the unique way in which they interact with, create and contribute to dramatic structures which is Schnittke's compelling achievement, and which emerged in the final symphonic concert of the recent Schnittke Festival at London's Barbican Centre (12-14 January 2001), possibly the most ambitious retrospective since the composer's death in 1998. Seeking the Soul: The Music of Alfred Schnittke offered, with its myriad talks, films and concerts in almost every genre, an impressive overview and insight into an oeuvre, still largely unfamiliar, of a prolific artist increasingly recognised as one of the most influential Russian composers since Shostakovich.

The concert on Sunday evening featured two major works of the early 1980s, the third of Schnittke's nine symphonies, which though timed in the programme at fifty minutes, lasted, in this powerful, broad performance, for over an hour, and the dramatic 'Faust Cantata'. Symphony no.3, composed in 1981, was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with effervescent energy and bright edge, responding to the dynamic command of their new Chief Conductor Leonard Slatkin. It is a large scale work in every sense: if some might have found it just over the top -- which it often is, it is always for some daring purpose. The work comes perilously close to being over bombastic, too concerned with simple gestures, too banal at times, in short, not subtle enough, but its sheer sonic presence gives it conviction. The orchestration is integral to the work's effect: with piano, harpsichord, celeste, organ and two harps, multiple brass and wind and a vast percussion section, four vibraphones, marimbas, gongs, various drums and drumkits, and bells, all contributing to the tumultuous tapestry of colours. The often overbearing textures are shot through with delicious aural flavours, slimmed down textures and passing witticisms, such as the Mozartian melodies of the second movement. The tutti material in fact has the intense expressiveness of a film score -- Schnittke completed over 60 of that genre -- with atmospheric progressions of chords through alternated major and minor modes, switching mercurially to something quite different.

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Copyright © 19 January 2001 Malcolm Miller, London, UK




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