I’d never taken much interest in Schnittke’s music, finding it largely impenetrable, until I listened to this CD, which is an excellent showcase for what I now realise was one of the most intriguing and polystylisitc (read eclectic) and, most of all, subversive composers in the second half of the 20th century.

Schnittke

Daniel Hope and his pianist display an overarching insight in these disparate scores (sometimes even within the same work) such as the weird rumba-like passage in the last movement of the Violin Sonata. These works really do continually bring you up short.

The opening work is the Suite in the Old Style and is a relatively straightforward and charming piece, for violin and piano in the style of Greig’s Holberg Suite, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin or Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. It’s warm and witty but always ready to suddenly veer off into brittle pastiche (only Schnittke could have originally composed it for viola d’amore, harpsichord and percussion).

I was initially surprised to read that his Violin Sonata No 1 is one of the most popular works post-World War II in that genre. My first reaction was to feel its steely elegance but ultimately, it’s the emotional sparseness (in the best sense of the word). The Tango (not at all like Stravinsky’s rather inscrutable attempt) and Polka are good-natured but the two pieces that really floored me was the Madrigal composed in memory of the Soviet violinist Oleg Kagan who premiered many of Schnittke’s works. This work is the musical equivalent of the expression “a thousand words” in a phrase. It’s spare to the point of being skeletally abstract, intensely grief-stricken yet eloquent in its very economy.

The other was his 1978 violin-and-piano version of the familiar carol Stille Nacht. The arrangement includes simple and double-stop-harmonized renditions and wrong notes – the piano layering in a deep, distant, dissonantly tolling bell – and air raid siren effects. It’s deeply, almost scabrously sardonic.

I found this CD an absolute revelation: it’s not always easy (the Sonata is quite knotty in parts) but it’s also deeply rewarding.

Listen on Apple Music

Composer: Schnittke
Works: Works for Violin and Piano
Performers: Daniel Hope v, Alexey Botvinov p
Label: DG 4839234

Sign up to the Limelight newsletter