Glass/Schnittke Orchestral Works

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Glass/Schnittke Orchestral Works

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Concerto Grosso No. 5

The Violin Concerto (1987) is Philip Glass's first large-scale score for conventional orchestra without voices. In all other respects it's quite characteristic of him in its chugging ostinato rhythms, its repetitive pattern-making (no less repetitive for the frequent permutational changes), its simple and slowly changing harmony. One feature, however, that's all the more apparent because of the work's scoring is the fact that his music lacks melody. Euphonious, singable, even memorable simple patterns of intervals, yes, but nothing that could seriously be described as a tune. Tunes, almost by their nature, demand development, and Glass's music changes but does not develop. The lack is all the more noticeable because the character of the violin set against repetitive figures (as it often is in baroque concertos) seems to cry out for a cantabile that will soar above those figures. Glass's soloist often proceeds in longer note-values than the orchestra, the effect, though, is of the violin being in a different gear to the orchestra but driven by the same engine. Others may find his infallibly dulcet sound-world and the undoubted allure of pure and simple intervals a satisfying substitute for music in which something of consequence happens, in which surprise and conflict are possible. I cannot.
Schnittke's violin concerto (for that is what it is, despite its title) describes the cycle of the seasons. If we hadn't already guessed that his temperamental affinity is with winter, this work would prove it. Spring is a time of dancing, but there's more than a hint of burlesque to this waltz-measure: not only the waltz but the city of its origin is the object of Schnittke's irony. Summer too, is dance; but also march-based (strong echoes of Stravinsky's Soldier, lighter ones of Berg's Wozzeck), while autumn (heralded by the alarming apparition of an amplified piano, played by a concealed performer) is filled with ominous warnings: bells and a mysterious harpsichord 'continuo'. Winter is an elegy becoming first protesting (the orchestra congeals in dense chords around the soloist) then, as so often with Schnittke, a distinctly Shostakovich-derived quiet threnody. As so often with Schnittke also, cogent discussion and vividly striking imagery are at times combined with a sort of all-purpose angular modernism (one senses him saying exasperatedly ''Well, what else am I supposed to do?'') that is disconcerting, but somehow part of his troubled but arresting musical psychology. Kremer and Dohnanyi are obviously deeply in sympathy with Schnittke's expressive world and the performance is a fine one, lucidly recorded.'

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