Friday, 15 January 2010

Schnittke's posthumous Ninth

I seldom post about music, mainly because I am not technically qualified, but I felt I had to say how moved I was by the broadcast of Schnittke's last symphony this morning in Radio 3's "This Week's Composer" series. Although Schnittke was severely handicapped by a series of strokes in the last ten years of his life, his compositions increased rather than diminished during that time. A common outcome of stroke is an inability to recall the names of familiar objects, even though ones other intellectual abilities are unaffected. Thus, Schnittke could write the music for his ninth, but the instruments' names on the score were virtually indecipherable. After his death in 1998, two fellow-composers undertook the work of reconstructing the symphony. Alexander Raskatov finally succeeded after the first, Nikolai Korndorf, died of a brain tumour.

Arguably, because of the process of preparation of the performing edition, Owain Arwel Hughes's recording with the Cape Philharmonic may not have sounded exactly as Schnittke intended, but the musical structure must have been faithfully reproduced. Schnittke was consciously aiming for a simpler style in his later works, as his friend and biographer Alexander Ivashkin told R3 presenter Donald Macleod. The work reminded me of the slow movement of Malcolm Arnold's sixth, though not quite as bleak.

The first work in the programme was the ebullient soundtrack music for "The Master and Margarita" , in Schnittke's more familiar polystylistic mode. The film for which it was intended was shelved, and the later Russian adaptation of Bulgakov's novel used another composer. I see that a Hollywood (?) version is in course of production; is it too much to hope that at least some of Schnittke's score is used in this?

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