Schnittke: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra
Shostakovich: Sonata for Viola and Piano
Antoine Tamestit, viola; Markus Hadulla, piano
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dmitri Kitajenko

Naí¯ve Ambroisie

This intriguing Ambroisie release pairs the final works of music ever completed by Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Interesting enough, both were written for viola, the deeper, rich-voiced member of the violin family that does not often have its moment in the limelight. Schnittke completed his Concerto for Viola and Orchestra only two weeks before the onset of a series of devastating strokes that would take his life. Shostakovich, on the other hand, knew he was dying when he wrote his Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147, as we know from his correspondence with Fyodor Druzhinin, the artist for whom it was written. Shostakovich was particularly interested to know if the scale passages in parallel fourths in the Allegretto could be played on the viola. The reply was, in effect, “You write it, we’ll play it.” The composer never lived to hear the sonata performed, but was heartened by Druzhinin’s letter, received two days before his death, proclaiming it a masterpiece. And indeed it is.

It is tempting to view Schnittke’s concerto as likewise embodying his final thoughts on life, but in fact he had anticipated a long and happy sojourn in Hamburg, to which he moved permanently in 1985, taking advantage of the new freedom of Soviet artists to travel abroad under Glasnost. The work is nonetheless solemn enough, incorporating, as does the Shostakovich, silences that can be as eloquent as sound. It is in the unusual three-movement structure of Largo-Allegro molto-Largo (or slow-fast-slow), reversing our normal expectations of a concerto. It begins in tonal ambiguity (high A or low G-sharp?) and early-on challenges the soloist – the wonderful French violist Antoine Tamestit in this recording – with a wide stretch along the fingerboard producing a cluster chord of diamond-hard brilliance just before the orchestra is drawn into the undertow. The Allegro molto has the orchestra trying to drown out the attempts of the viola to engage in a melody. The strings move at different speeds, the winds howl like banshees, and the overall momentum of the orchestra is a relentless four-four stomping (Listening to this account, I had the mental picture of a jackrabbit frantically trying to keep out of the way of a gigantic threshing combine.)

The Largo finale, as long as the other two movements put together, begins with a cadenza, anguished but thoughtful at the same time. There is more melody here than I had previously associated with this composer. The music begins a long process of turning in upon itself. The orchestra is used sparingly, but to good effect, as a single sharp chord in the trumpet and ominous timpani and lower strings introduce a note of panic and a fear of oblivion that the viola struggles to overcome. A shuddering discord from the orchestra signals a slow descent into silence. The diminuendo ends with a series of widely spaced chords from the viola, like pulses on a cardiograph that finally end in a long, drawn-out note (lasting a full 12 seconds in this performance) and then silence. The ending is in C Major, in traditional harmonic theory the most optimistic of tones, suggesting sunshine. It is very pale yellow sunlight in this instance.

The Shostakovich, like the Schnittke, ends in C Major, a tone which obviously had a special meaning for that composer, too. (Tamestit himself admits a special fondness for the open C, a particularly rich tone which he says vibrates throughout one’s being when the end button of the instrument is held against the performer’s neck.) The work has the form Moderato-Allegretto-Adagio, so that it too ends in a slow movement. In the opening movement, the violist and pianist (here, Markus Hadulla) playfully swap melody and accompaniment, legato and staccato, chromatics and melody. The music becomes more anguished, and then we have an eerie passage in the viola played sul ponticello, high up on the bridge, producing a spectral effect. The Allegretto, on the other hand, is all hooked grace notes and syncopations, the composer merrily thumbing his nose at convention as we had heard him do often in his career (the Second Piano Trio comes to mind). We hear those parallel fourths that we mentioned earlier, and then a galumphing Russian dance, with the violist playing expressively and the pianist banging out a succession of fifths, ends the movement. The Adagio finale pays homage to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but with its familiar pattern of triplets squared. The mood is somber, a cold and clear midnight reverie that replaces the enchantment of the original. A mid-movement cadenza is taken legato by the viola, with muted strings. There is a fortissimo outburst, a final protest against fate, and then a slow dying away into C Major and ultimate silence.

The performance by Tamestit and Hadulla is exception, as filled with eloquence as it is disciplined, which it must be considering the composer’s emphasis on diminuendo and the expressive use of pauses and silence. Much credit is also due to the quality engineering evident in both performances. In particular, recognition for a participant not often fully recognized in recording, the balance engineer (in this instance, Hannelore Guittet) who makes recordings taken in different places and times (Warsaw, 2007 and Switzerland, 2008) sound like one seamless, throughly satisfying program.

2 Responses to “Schnittke + Shostakovich: Works for Viola”
  1. Pedro says:

    It’s interesting to note that a lot of composers wrote last works, sometimes left unfinished, for the viola. Bartók, Khachaturian, and Glinka also come to mind.

  2. Michael Hall says:

    Someone needs to check their facts. The Viola Concerto is not Schnittke’s last piece, not by a long shot. The concerto was written in 1985, yet Schnittke lived until 1998, composing many works after the concerto. True, he did suffer a series of strokes shortly after composing the viola concerto, but he endured for an additional 13 years. Nice recording thou.

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