when the schnittke hits the fan

a year or two back my friend matthew gave me some alfred schnittke to listen to, specifically his concerto grosso no 1 for prepared piano, harpsichord, two violins and strings. i'm a little intimidated by most contemporary classical music, or more to the point i'm intimidated by the stuff that goes with it; the analysis of structure and form and all that. i probably know just enough about it to make a complete arse of myself should i ever end up talking about it. so my usual approach is to ignore all that and just attempt to engage with the music in an instinctive way. the concerto grosso is a beautiful piece and so it's easy to engage with it on that level.

so a week or so back i ended up at the QEH with matthew to see it performed live. it was great, it must be said, as was the monologue for viola and strings, which had some incredible textures, where all the strings were playing so softly that the notes were barely audible; i have rarerly heard anything so gorgeous. plus i like the viola a lot. matthew had written his dissertation on schnittke so when he said that he felt that the piece lacked a convincing structure i think he's probably right, but structure's never been my strong point.

matthew also pointed out (though i don't think this was a criticism) that the concerto grosso was taken at a fair old lick. i hadn't clocked that, but again i think he was right and a listen to it on the tube journey home proved it. of course performances of such music are all about interpretation, and for those in the audience familiar wirh the works this can be a bit of an issue. it's even an issue for rock fans, who generally want to hear the music played just like it sounds on the cd. but of course the classical model is way more complex. i remember when i was a kid my mum had a boxed set of classical 'greatest hits' on ronco records or something like that. it featured the usual stuff; the overture to william tell, 'morning' from peer gynt, the ride of the valkyries etc. a gymnopedie or two. what really floated my boat was a rendition of the second movement of mahler's 5th symphony (as used in 'death in venice'). now these weren't definitive versions - no barbirolli or haitink or boult, just probably some obscure romanian orchestra with the orchestra leader conducting (this was ronco records, not deutsche grammofon). however, that version of the seconf movement remains the best i've heard. i'm sure someone with a greater knowledge of mahler would have ointed out that it was too slow, the acoustic was too reverberant and the timing was sloppy etc etc. and they'd probably be right. maybe it was because it was the first recording i'd come across and that i was a particularly impressionable age, i don't know. but it shows how complex and subtle the issue of interpretation it is.

for years i'd assumed that classical concerts were a waste of time - dead music played by a bunch of highly skilled workmen responding to the will of an autocrat (ie the conductor). it was everything i didn't want music (or life in general) to be about. while i haven't exactly had a road to damascus experience that's overturned that view entirely, at least i've started to get that it's a lot more complex than that...

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