Cello Sonata No. 1

Composer: Alfred Schnittke (b. 1934 - d. 1998)
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Composer: Alfred Schnittke (b. 1934 - d. 1998)

Performance date: 03/07/2019

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1978

Duration: 00:22:01

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: vc, pf

Instrumentation Category:Duo

Artists: Laura van der Heijden - [cello]
Finghin Collins - [piano]

Alfred Schnittke [1934-1998]

Cello Sonata No.1 [1978]

1. Largo – attacca

2. Presto – attacca

3. Largo

Although I don’t have any Russian blood, I am tied to Russia, having spent all my life here. On the other hand, much of what I’ve written is somehow related to German music and to the logic which comes out of being German, although I did not specially want this…Like my German forefathers, I live in Russia, I can speak and write Russian far better than German. But I am not Russian…My Jewish half gives me no peace: I know none of the three Jewish languages – but I look like a typical Jew. 

Schnittke’s music reflects his uncertain identity, mixing styles old and new, modern, post-modern, baroque and classical, in a heady concoction, which reflects the complex and fragile mentality of the late twentieth century. His music used to be our language, more perfect than the verbal one, wrote one Russian critic. All performances of his music were major events for Soviet listeners; in his music they found ideas and values absent in real life during the stagnation of Soviet ideology. During the eighties and nineties his music was performed everywhere to great acclaim, though I suppose it will be years before his nine symphonies and numerous concertos become staples of orchestral life.

There is a direct line from Shostakovich to Schnittke, and on to Sofia Gubaidulina, three powerful and vital voices from the last sixty years, who need to be heard more often. Schnittke died before his time nearly twenty years ago, worn out by the obstructive attitude of the Soviet authorities and crippled by a succession of strokes. He wrote his Ninth Symphony with his left hand, when he was already unable to speak and could hardly move; courage was his second name. 

You might not be aware of it but the First Cello Sonata is known as Schnittke’s most often performed and recorded work. It was written for Natalia Gutman, who premiered it in Moscow in 1979. The work is in three movements, played without a break, an infernal and furious presto sandwiched between two highly expressive largos. Schnittke sets out to explore the twilit border between darkness and light, the gap between two worlds where anything can happen. There are moments of nostalgia for a lost world with allusions to classical style, moments of shimmering beauty, before we cross the boundary to the manic world of our own time. The explosive fury of the presto is wildly exciting music, presenting the musicians with an impossible challenge concluding in an extraordinary cluster, where the nightmare disintegrates and the cello resolutely rescues us from the chaos. Suddenly we realise we are in the hands of a truly great composer, as the cello sings with heart-rending conviction that things could be different. Here is no sentimentality, no false emotionalism, no cheap pretence, but a passionate belief in the transforming power of music. The end returns to the shimmering border between the light and the dark, as we are brought back to the silence. 

Francis Humphrys