The polystylist music of Alfred Schnittke strikes a resonant chord with Australia-based pianist Konstantin Shamray. Although he was barely a teenager from Siberia when the Soviet/German composer died in 1998, the music had a huge and lasting impact on him.
Harry Ward and the ANAM Orchestra. Photograph © James Grant
“I feel as if his music reflects some of my formative experiences,” Shamray says. So, when Musica Viva Artistic Director Paul Kildea suggested he give the second ever Australian performance of Schnittke’s Concerto For Piano And Strings [In One Movement] for a collaborative project with the ANAM Orchestra and Sophie Rowell, the virtuoso re-immersed himself in the composer’s sometimes harrowing sound world.
“This particular concerto was written in the late 1970s not long before I was born, when it became clear something needed to change in the Soviet Union, and it raises many questions and emotional concerns from the period,” says Shamray.
Listening to Schnittke is a little like flicking the dial on your FM radio – you’ll pick up a phrase of Tchaikovsky, perhaps a pinch of Shostakovich, maybe a jazz channel, then some Stockhausen and a Russian Orthodox chorale. All those elements were present in this 29-minute piece which was given a thrilling performance by Shamray and the 20 best and brightest string players from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) in Melbourne led by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Rowell.
Starting serenely with simple chords from the unaccompanied piano, the work combines a beautiful and hopeful Old Russian Church chant in the right hand with some ever more disturbing dissonances in the left, building to a cacophony which veers from some nightmarish sliding strings – think Dali and his melting clocks – through a Hitchcockian episode featuring stabbing bows à la Psycho and a jazzy interlude with the piano accompanied by a walking bass. Hope, happily, triumphs in the end with a whispered fade of notes at the top of the keyboard.
Such a weighty piece needed a lighter counterbalance and Shamray provided it with a luminous and poetic rendition of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor Op.32 No 5.
Schnittke studied in Vienna and it was in that city that the concert started with a student work by Gustav Mahler, the abandoned Piano Quartet in A minor, here arranged for string orchestra by one of Musica Viva’s FutureMakers, violinist Harry Ward, making his debut tour before leaving to take up his place at the select Karajan Academy in Berlin.
Ward has been working his way up the musical ranks here as a member of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s nursery group ACO2, mentored by Helena Rathbone, as well as appearing in one of Kathryn Selby’s virtual Selby and Friends concerts during last year’s lockdown.
His arrangement of Mahler’s single movement – he completed 24 bars of a second movement before abandoning the project – brought out the early influence of Brahms and Dvorak on the teenage composer, though there are some hints of greater things to come.
The concert was by way of a farewell to Ward and the second half opened with a lovely Lamento for solo violin and string orchestra by Estonian composer Mihkel Kerem, currently in lockdown in the UK where he is Associate Concertmaster with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. The work was originally written for cello and strings in 2008 and Kerem was commissioned to revise it as Musica Viva’s parting gift to Ward.
Ward’s violin soaring over the ensemble’s pedal point, merging beautifully with the solo viola at times, put this listener in mind of some of the music by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.
Rowell showed us that the future of Australia’s classical music is in safe hands by leading the ANAM band in a finely judged and memorable performance of Tchaikovsky’s crowd-pleaser, Serenade for Strings in C major, to put the seal on a concert from the top shelf.
Konstantin Shamray, the ANAM Orchestra, Sophie Rowell & Harry Ward play at Perth Concert Hall on 3 May; City Recital Hall, Sydney on 10 May; Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, Brisbane on 11 May; Adelaide Town Hall on 13 May; and Melbourne Recital Centre on 15 May. The concert will also be livestreamed on 15 May