Giya Kancheli/Alfred Schnittke: Works for Viola and Orchestra (ECM New Series 1471)

Kancheli/Schnittke
Works for viola and orchestra

Kim Kashkashian viola
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester Saarbrücken
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded November 1991, Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Kancheli)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded May 1986, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Saarbrücken (Schnittke)
Engineer: Helmut David
Remixed by Peter Laenger and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This powerful record brings together two of the most seminal works for viola and orchestra of the twentieth century. Although these pieces are as different as they are similar, together they form a distinct balance of sentiment and execution.

Giya Kancheli: Vom Winde beweint (Mourned by the Wind)
Kancheli’s self-styled “liturgy” is an exercise in patience and surrender. Its opening slam of piano chords is a big bang in and of itself, and sets the stage for the soloist’s epic journey. Wilfred Mellers, in his liner notes, posits the viola’s emergence from such chaos as the “birth of consciousness.” And indeed, one can extrapolate from its startling abruptness the inklings of a life yet lived, fresh and devoid of self-awareness in the greater void of silence. The orchestra skirts the periphery, gradually uniting with the soloist. This contrast mimics the arbitrary stability of human values—at once sacred and mutable—so that moments of resolution always tread a downward slope. Luminous winds, a cosmic harpsichord, and trails of harmonics characterize the first movement. Brief horn blasts introduce the second, throughout which the viola wanders without fortitude into a minefield of piano and timpani, singing without carrying a tune. The harpsichord again works its galactic magic, feeding stardust into the viola’s arterial core. A passage of intense and sustained volume leads into an epic swan song. The third movement is brought forth on the strings of the harpsichord, the viola a mere flit of wings in the surrounding air. An oboe threads the hesitation like the beginning of an incomplete statement. The fourth movement is a violent implosion and balances out the first with its selfish gaze. As with seemingly every Kancheli composition, it ends as quietly as an evening breeze. One hears the rustling of leaves in the distance, only to find that it was a trick of the ears all along. Vom Winde beweint is rich with sharp dynamic peaks that are short-lived and sporadic, the hallmarks of an ode to process over progress.

Alfred Schnittke: Konzert für Viola und Orchester
For this monumental work, Schnittke has chosen to invert the standard concerto form, sandwiching an Allegro Molto between two Largos. The piece opens with a viola solo held aloft by shimmering orchestral waves. Every melodic line is like the root of an ever-growing tree of voices. In the second movement, the viola skips across a landscape of consonances and dissonances at the behest of a passively insistent harpsichord. Schnittke maintains the fascinating sense of rhythm and energy that distinguishes his faster turns, scratching at the surface of a larger unfathomable world. Harpsichord, flute, and viola congregate in a Mozartean danse macabre at the movement’s center. The strangely wooden pizzicato toward the end haunts as the piano jumps impatiently on its lower notes. The last movement gives the viola a demanding solo, which is eventually overtaken by horns and winds. A deep pause marks a change in intent. The harpsichord once again comes to the fore, the final cameo of a strong orchestral cast, before bowing to a beautifully dissonant double stop from the viola.

Schnittke would suffer a stroke just ten days after completing the score for his concerto.* Said the composer: “Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).” Such narrative approaches to one’s own work speak of a pragmatic mind that seeks order in the flow of a creative life. Yet rather than a premonition, I experience the concerto as an affirmation of what one already knows. If Kancheli’s is an unanswered question, Schnittke’s is an unquestioned answer.

This is a profoundly emotional album, by turns confrontational and mournfully resplendent. Kashkashian brings her usual heartrending strength to even the subtlest gestures and is never afraid to betray the fragility of her pitch. The orchestras, under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies, are forces to be reckoned with that scintillate in a slightly distanced mix. A benchmark recording in all respects.

*My thanks to Christopher Culver for the correction.

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2 thoughts on “Giya Kancheli/Alfred Schnittke: Works for Viola and Orchestra (ECM New Series 1471)

  1. “Schnittke would suffer a heart attack just ten days after completing the score for his concerto.”

    Schnittke suffered a stroke at this time (and a few more times in the subsequent 13 years), not a heart attack.

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