Endymion’s Schnittke and Shostakovitch

Schnittke, Shostakovich: Endymion, Hall One, Kings Place, London, 12.5.2011 (GDn)

Schnittke : Piano Quartet

Shostakovich : Viola Sonata

Schnittke : Suite in the Old Style

Shostakovich : Cello Sonata

Performers: Krysia Osostowicz, Clara Bliss (violins), Asdis Valdimarsdottir (viola), Jane Samon (cello), Michael Dussek (piano)

I’d previously been unconvinced by arguments that Schnittke was the natural successor to Shostakovich. In the 1980s, when there seemed to be a Schnittke CD coming out every week, record companies stressed the point in an effort to win over Schnittke converts from the already firmly established Shostakovich fan base. But surely the composers are completely different. There is a political vein in Shostakovich’s music that you don’t find in Schnittke, even though he suffered almost to the same extent under the Soviet regime. And there is an overtly religious dimension to Schnittke’s music; which may have come to the surface in Shostakovich’s music if he had had the chance, but he didn’t and the results are, or at least seem, completely different.

But this Endymion programme made the case well, and paired up works in the two halves that have natural musical affinities. Linking Schnittke’s Piano Quartet with Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata allows us to consider how the historical references in the older composer’s late works informed Schnittke’s polystylism (the Quartet is based on a fragment by Mahler, while the Viola Sonata quotes Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata). And then in the second half, the two composers were presented in a lighter, or at least less angst-ridden mood. Both Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style and Shostakovich’s early(ish) Cello Sonata are works without pretensions, Schnittke giving us skilful and playful baroque pastiche and Shostakovich unabashed Romanticism. It was also interesting to listen to the Shostakovich Cello Sonata in a Schnittke-heavy programme and consider how much Schnittke’s own First Cello Sonata owes to this pivotal Soviet-era work.

In my opinion, the Schnittke Piano Quartet really needs to follow the Mahler first movement to make any sense. The work is based on a fragment of a second movement that Mahler wrote for a piano quartet as a teenager, having already completed the first. Schnittke weaves his work around ideas of memory and forgetting, with the theme of the fragment always appearing in a blurred or distorted form, until it finally appears at the end just as Mahler left it. When the piece follows Mahler’s first movement, this gives a sense of return, but without the first movement its meaning remains ambiguous.

That said, the performers really made the most of the idea of distance through time, and of historical reference as nostalgia. In the final iteration of the fragment, neither Mahler nor Schnittke give any decisive performance directions, there are just the notes. But in this performance, it retained its historical distance, with the players performing quietly and wistfully, as if this theme was still just a memory, and a vague memory at that.

The performance of the preceding music acknowledged the complexity of Schnittke’s textures, but occasionally lacked drama. Despite the intellectual themes of memory and forgetting that underpin the work, much of this music is visceral and dramatic. So it needs daylight between the hammered chords of the piano, and extreme contrasts when called for. But even though the performers could have pushed everything a bit further, the work retained its symphonic quality, making this an impressive performance.

The rest of the programme was made up of sonatas for solo string instruments with piano accompaniment. The two Shostakovich sonatas are also quite symphonic works, a quality that these performers communicated well. Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style is baroque pastiche, but there is drama here too, and a focussed and involving performance like this one does it full justice.

None of the string soloists was note perfect in terms of intonation and articulation, although Jane Salmon was the closest by far in the Cello Sonata. But any slips or lapses along the way were momentary and didn’t detract from the drama or mood of the works. Michael Dussek put in an impressive turn on the piano. He was the only performer to appear in every work, and his accompaniments were both solid and sensitive.

I was pleased to see such a good turn out, especially since the programme was hardly a crowd-pleaser. Hopefully they will all be back tomorrow and Saturday for the other “Goodbye Stalin!” events. It has been a good few months since I was last at Kings Place, so I don’t know what the audience numbers have been like recently, but in the past they have been pretty feeble. Perhaps this means that the venue has finally got its publicity system in working order. After all, Kings Place is probably the best concert hall in London in terms of acoustics and facilities. It has everything else a concert hall could want, so if it now has an audience as well, then it is probably on the right track.

Gavin Dixon