Alfred Schnittke: Concerto Grosso I / Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings / Concerto for Piano and Strings

For nearly 21 years, only one work defined my perception of Alfred Schnittke — his third string quartet, which Kronos Quartet recorded for its third studio album Winter Was Hard.

It took a long while before I got around to listening to the rest of his string quartets, but once I did, I became curious about his other works.

So off to eMusic I went to download a number of recordings on the Bis label, and the richness of his string quartets were amplified by the heterogeneity of his orchestrations.

Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso I is often cited as a major work, and it’s easy to hear why. His "polystylistic" writing can get dense, melody peeking out of clouds of harmony, dissonance giving way to consonance, only to dissolve back into a hazy texture.

A prepared piano plucks out a vaguely folk melody at the start of the Concerto Grosso I, after which strings hesitantly introduce more commentary. The first movement builds to an impenetrable cluster before fading into the manic second movement, which effortless jumps back in time to mimic the concerti grosso of the Baroque era. It doesn’t take long before those tonal melodies give way to something less linear.

Schnittke wrote "The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so." He does so with amazing agility. Tonal and atonal co-exist in the same work, pushing and pulling each other without being adversarial about it. In short, his works are not dogmatic.

In the first four minutes of the Concerto for Piano and Strings, an elegiac melody in the piano gradually builds to a folk melody disrupted by bursts in the strings. The folk melody then gives way to a brief glimpse of a motet before dissolving again.

The Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings follows a similar path. Uneasy strings fade in and out as the oboe sings a long melody. The harp serves more as percussion, its plucks falling between the rhythmic gaps left by the remaining ensemble. Unlike the Concerto Grosso I and the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the Concerto for Oboe, Harp and Strings is less polystylistic, content to leave tonality off the page.

Schnittke does, however, give that oboe quite a workout, at times making it sound more like a car horn or an emergency vehicle siren.

I won’t comment on the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra’s performances of these works since I don’t have anything else to which to compare. Suffice to say, Schnittke gives these players a lot of meat to chew, and they really put themselves out there. Oboist Helen Jahren deserves nods for putting her instrument through that much abuse.