Concerto for Viola and Orchestra

The famous Concerto for Viola and Orchestra was written in 1985 and dedicated to the outstanding Russian violist Yuri Bashmet. Almost the entire structure of the concerto is based on a 6 note motif derived from the 6 tone motif B♭–A– E♭–C–B(♮)–E(♮), corresponding to the spelling of Yuri Bashmet’s surname (Baschmet) in German and French music letter notation. Bashmet gave the world premiere on January 9, 1986, in Amsterdam with the Royal Concertgebouw orchestra under the direction of Lucas Vis. And his story with this tragic existential work he told in his autobiographical book The Train Station of Dreams:

“Schnittke has been obliterating the boundaries of genre all of his life, freely admitting in his works quasi-quotations from the music of the great precursors. Every musical style – from Mozart to techno and from church singing to pop music – was just a fragment of sound to him. And it was from the amassing of these fragments, from the apparent musical chaos, that Schnittke could produce stories. One of the most characteristic is recorded with notes in the Viola concerto. After the premiere of his piano quintet, I asked him to write something for the viola, and he got to work nine years later. His wife called me to say: “He began writing.” And I realized – it had started. Later, he asked, by letters, whether one or another passage was technically possible – since he had not written for solo viola until then. Not that he did not take liberties with my recommendations. I only now understand why his music is real and alive. His musical ideas were so powerful, and his feelings so deep that minor technical considerations did not count on the whole. On the other hand, it is a music in which each note acquires special meaning.

In the middle of the concert there is a section with very transparent and beautiful music, which many perceive simply as a popular tune or, say it – as something light and enjoyable. When I played this concerto in Amsterdam for three consecutive evenings, Alfred could not attend because of the stroke. I brought him a bottle of cognac in Moscow and three tape recordings of the three performances. We met and listened three times each of the tapes – that is, for one night we heard the Concerto nine times. He was real pleased with the third performance and when we got to this illustrious middle section, he lay down on the floor and began to laugh, almost fell into hysterics (he reacted boisterously to everything, adored the anecdotes and paradoxes). On this recording I deliberately exaggerated the ironic romanticism and the so-called beauty. He said: “Yes, yes, that’s right, it has to be so beautiful so that it would feel sweet on your mouth, then syrupy and disgusting – and then its interruption will be timely!” In the end of the concerto, he recalls this “sweet” theme again. But very briefly and with different harmony. And then the memory of “beauty” causes a total collapse – everything is falling apart, the music retreats in the wilderness… Thus, beauty can sometimes be a terrifying force, though no one before Schnittke confronted it in such a pungent way with hideous and the dreadful. This resulted in a brand new language and new music.  Unique and comprehensible to everyone – in Russia, Germany, Japan … The Shakespearean tragism of Schnittke’s music is far from being an abstraction. The important thing is that, in his trying to reach in his work to the essence of human being, he allowed the cashes of polar forces that constitute this being to go through his own heart and soul: love and hate, truth and lie, life and death.”

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