Review by: David Hurwitz
Artistic Quality: 9
Sound Quality: 9
These very early works, dating from the mid to late 1950s, reveal Schnittke’s talent from the outset of his career. This is by no means as obvious as it sounds. His later “collage” works are sort of like paintings by Jackson Pollock: we all think we could do it just as well–except that we don’t. And as for Schnittke’s bleak and miserable late work, the question of talent hardly arises. It is what it is. Here we find a young composer enthusiastically exploring a style that consists of an amalgam of Shostakovich, Hindemith, and (according to the notes) Carl Orff, which of course really means Stravinsky.
The symphony (I do wish people would quit using that stupid “No. 0” conceit) is a very fine work, boldly scored and full of memorable thematic ideas. The idiom is quite tonal, the treatment of form confident, the rhythmic motion vigorous. I found it much more appealing than, say, Myaskovsky or Vainberg, and as an example of “good” Soviet-era music it’s quite impressive. The choral work Nagasaki, for obvious reasons, seems to promise a bit more than it delivers. Schnittke was reportedly not too fond of the text, but the apocalyptic subject matter is actually prophetic of his later work. Certainly the piece has its impressive moments, though it’s no Faust Cantata, and like the symphony it wears its derivative elements lightly.
For the most part the performances here are quite good. In Nagasaki the choir could be larger and a bit steadier (sopranos especially), while the orchestra seems a bit thin in the strings. But this isn’t music that begs for an especially opulent sound: clarity and a certain timbral astringency suit it quite well, and that’s what we get. Certainly the conducting of Owain Arwel Hughes leaves little to be desired in such unfamiliar music, while BIS seems incapable of engineering a poor-sounding recording. This is a major release in the Schnittke discography, one that fills in an important missing page. More to the point, if you detest Schnittke’s late works–or even his mature poly-stylistic pieces–but like 20th century Russian music generally, you will certainly enjoy this release.
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Recording Details:Reference Recording: None
ALFRED SCHNITTKE - Symphony No. "0"; Nagasaki