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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long goodbye
This is an immensely difficult box to summarise, its contents seeming to go so much further than simple categories of my own like or dislike. Schnittke's enigmatic genius has got to stand as one of the most individual voices of 20th Century music. His highly personal modernism is very demanding of the listener, both musically, but also in its ethical rigour. On the one...
Published on 15 Jun 2011 by John Ferngrove

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3.0 out of 5 stars Some strong music
My love for Schnittke's music grows by the year. But, let us be clear, his output was of mixed quality. This was partly a matter of the decline in his health as he suffered a series of catastrophic strokes that made it ever more difficult for him to write music. But he did produce masterpieces throughout his life.

Schnittke's symphonies as a group do not...
Published 2 months ago by enthusiast


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43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A long goodbye, 15 Jun 2011
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John Ferngrove (Hants UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Schnittke: The 10 Symphonies (Audio CD)
This is an immensely difficult box to summarise, its contents seeming to go so much further than simple categories of my own like or dislike. Schnittke's enigmatic genius has got to stand as one of the most individual voices of 20th Century music. His highly personal modernism is very demanding of the listener, both musically, but also in its ethical rigour. On the one hand he picks up the banner from Shostakovich as subversive champion for freedom from the deathly shackles of the Soviet regime. Against this is pitted a mysticism quite capable of believing twelve impossible things before breakfast, and which draws heavily on the rumbling bells and the incense laden atmosphere of mumbled Orthodox rituals. His symphonies Nos. 1 to 5 are spectacular canvases, that begin in chaotic brilliance but are then progressively honed in intensity, until a veritable explosion in No.5, which qualifies as one of the most terrifyingly apocalyptic pieces of music of which I am aware. Then, with Symphonies 6 to 9, written while increasing debilitated under the impact of progressively paralysing strokes, the vast canvases are replaced by terse, simple works, highly restrained, quiet and quietist in their intent. The overall trajectory is of a star that has swelled to brilliance, that then, after a catastrophic flaring, takes an agonisingly long time to die.

One of the great surprises of the set is undoubtedly Symphony No.0, a student piece, which is like discovering a long lost Shostakovich symphony, and one that's in the running for being one of his finest. It is as though Schnittke wanted to mark with perfect clarity his point of departure, before setting off for the uncharted territory he would stake out for his own. Shostakovich is there to be heard in all Schnittke's later symphonies, particularly in the slow movements. And though that musical influence is progressively sublimated, the moral integrity remains defiantly clear throughout.

The main sequence of Nos. 1 to 5 is characterised by what Schnittke called polystylism, which at its most basic was a crunching together of musical forms of every style and period. Symphony No.1, constructed from incidental music he wrote for a TV history documentary series, sprawls on the edge of disintegration and chaos, but is rescued by its relentless seriousness of purpose. Symphony No.2 is the first of the even-numbered liturgical-mystical symphonies, and is a profound synthesis of religious styles. Symphony No.3 took me a lot of careful listening before its power and ambition became clear to me. Of all these early phase works this is perhaps the one most formally like a symphony. No.4 is a limpid mystical work of extraordinary beauty, like a musical rendering of Dali's Ecumenical Council, constructed as an interpenetrating set of increasingly elaborate variations, on three simply stated opening themes. Its dramatic centre is one of a crushing spiritual power, that is more terrifying than comforting. No.5 is subtitled a Concerto Grosso, and comes across like one of Shostakovich's war symphonies updated for the Nuclear Age. The slowly booming drum taps with which it climaxes feel like the earth opening up to spill the dead of all the centuries. An utterly stunning work and probably the climax of the set.

We then come to the years of decline. At first it is hard to know what to think of these very understated and generally morose works. They contain hardly anything of action. The wild and intricate counterpoint of the earlier works is gone, and there is seldom much more going on than two rather laconic voices, or blocky movements of strange, bitter chords. But Schnittke's melody is rich and engaging, and his capacity for conjuring novel sonorities from the orchestra seems not to have deserted him. One is reminded more of Shostakovich's late quartets rather than the symphonies. These works, which are hard not to interpret in any way other than pessimistically, pose tantalising questions about Schnittke's purpose: had illness deprived Schnittke of his faith in God, or man, or himself? Had it even deprived him of the formidable compositional powers that are so apparent in the earlier works? Despite this, patient listening reveals, to me at least, that this is still Schnittke, and he still has something very serious to say to us.

So that's my best shot at describing this late Soviet enigma, in the limited space available. A cynical saint whose music is probably going to appeal more to those who prefer to hear the bad news before the good. A modernist of profound inventiveness, and unique contradictions, whose language embraces devotion and rage, faith and despair, beauty and terror. A Soviet Blake who believed in angels and came asymptotically close to describing them.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Some strong music, 3 May 2014
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enthusiast "enthusiast" (sussex, uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Schnittke: The 10 Symphonies (Audio CD)
My love for Schnittke's music grows by the year. But, let us be clear, his output was of mixed quality. This was partly a matter of the decline in his health as he suffered a series of catastrophic strokes that made it ever more difficult for him to write music. But he did produce masterpieces throughout his life.

Schnittke's symphonies as a group do not represent in any sense a central body of his work and at no point in this set of symphonies do you not get a sense of Schnittke developing or settling down as a symphonist. Not only does the quality vary but the style and apparent intent varies also. Few of these works earn a place among the best of his music.I enjoy 2 and 3 but would not consider either to be essential Schnittke. 4 and 5 are surely the best of the group and may be the only works here that, for example, can come close to equalling the piano concerto, the Faust cantata, the two cello concertos, the viola concerto ... wonderful works all. I would imagine that most Schnittke fans would agree with this assesment although I must confess that I rather dislike the very eclectic 1st Symphony, finding it overlong and rather tedious. Others enjoy it more and see it as an iconic work.

The merits of this set are also qualified by the variability of the performances. Perhaps the best of the spare and bleak later symphonies, the 9th, gets a rather lacklustre performance (in no way the equal of Rozhdestvensky's), for example, and I prefer Chailly (greatly) to Jarvi in the powerful 5th. The record I play most from this set is Kamu's account of the 4th.

I do not think this set is a good purchase - you can get the better symphonies (and often in better performances) separately.
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Schnittke: The 10 Symphonies
Schnittke: The 10 Symphonies by Various (Audio CD - 2009)
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