Composer Alfred Schnittke was born on November 24th 1934, he was a postmodernist Russian/German composer who wrote a number of works for concert hall performance and also composed a great many film scores. His style ranged from dark toned musical works to avante garde pieces. His Father was Jewish of Latvian decent and his Mother was a Volga born German Catholic. After the second world war the Schnittke family moved to Vienna and it was there that Alfred began to learn to play piano and also started to study music. He later completed his musical studies in Moscow at the State Conservatory, where in later years he was himself to become a tutor. Between 1961 and 1984 the composer worked steadily in cinema and produced over 60 scores for Russian produced movies. However this was to be honest just the tip of his musical iceberg as the composer worked in a variety of genres, theatre and concert hall being among them, He wrote seven symphonies and a many string concerti as well as a piano concerto and the acclaimed Oratorio NAGASAKI (1958). His style was said by many to be influenced by the great Dmitry Shostakovich and also by the works of Joplin and Berg. He was known for integrating dissonant or disjointed elements into his works such as a brief but off kilter quote from Beethoven or a distorted and fragmented line from a folk song. He also utilised elements of Medieval chants to create effect and laced these with dark and densely jolting brass and percussion. He employed this style within his film scores also, and I have to remark that on listening to his wealth of works for the cinema it is an impressive and entertaining catalogue of work. The film music albums that were recorded by The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Frank Strobel, are I have to say an essential purchase and I do not say this lightly or indeed recommend them without reason. They are in a word SUPERB, there is such a variety of music here as in stylistically, because the composer cannot be categorised into any musical pigeon hole because his approach to each project is different, there are dark and discordant moments, exciting and fast paced passages and of course off the wall and at times quirky sounding compositions, all of which go to make up a collection of themes and tracks that are entertaining and impressive. His non film music however was at times met with mixed reactions by the critics and also by the public, the composer’s experimental works too were at times frowned upon by the officialdom in Russia.
He remained virtually unknown outside of the Soviet Union until the mid to late 1980’s but after being promoted by various prominent Russian composers and musicians his reputation soon began to grow in what was then Western Europe. He suffered a major stroke in 1985, but he still continued to compose and in the early 1990’s he was awarded The Praemium Imperiale by the Japanese Art Association. In 1993 he attended a performance of his SPECTRAL sixth symphony in the United States, which was a work dedicated too and conducted by the eminent musician Mstislav Rostropovich. He passed away on August 3rd 1998, he was 63 years of age. The film music albums as recorded by Frank Strobel and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra are a must have collection, and are available digitally, they were originally released on 4 discs, but for the digital version they have combined all the compilations into one. Plus the 4 cd set is also available on a Russian label but I have seen copies for sale online. It runs for a total of 4 hours 2 minutes and contains 64 tracks. The music is taken from ten film scores, all of which are from a variation of genres and subject matters.
The collection opens with six selections from THE STORY OF THE UNKNOWN ACTOR (1977), the score is divided into six suites, of course it goes without saying that this is fully symphonic, the music is haunting, empowering, inspiring and above all wonderfully melodic and vibrant. I cannot compare it with other composers work or indeed liken it to another film score, because the sound achieved within the six opening sections, is indeed unique and original. The composer utilises strings throughout that act as a foundation for the score to be built upon, piano and subtle woods too feature and bring to the work a fragility and a poignancy that just shines through and becomes an alluring and mesmerising quality. The score is basically made up of one single and simple theme, which the composer utilises effectively within the movie, but arranges and presents it various guises, each time it appears as a fresh and bright piece. The film focuses upon an ageing actor who is a member of a Serbian troupe, Schnittke’s inventive use of music within the movie enhances and supports the central characters growing anxieties and also his loss of faith in himself. The score, which is a beautiful one, adds depth, colour and textures to the scenarios that are being acted out on screen. There are gentle nods to the styles of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov within the soundtrack, and it also posses a quintessentially Russian sound as in folk songs and plaintive and romantically laced nuances.
The next film represented is THE COMMISSAR(1967), again the composer creates a melodic yet at times apprehensive sounding work, but for the majority of its duration, it is delicate and understated, apart that is from a handful of action cues as in ATTACKE, which is an interestingly robust and disjointed sounding piece, with wild brass flourishes, somewhat chaotic piano and xylophone that is supported and punctuated by an array of percussive elements including timpani, tubular bells and dark booming kettle drums. After the initial plethora of jagged and abrasive sounds the cue segues into something that is calmer but not necessarily thematic, which can be said for the remainder of the score, with the composer employing a more avant-garde style rather than a romantic or emotive one.
There are numerous atonal interludes which are mainly the work of the percussion, with assistance from piano and woodwind, the score also contains some cues that lean towards Yiddish music which is in keeping with the film’s storyline of a young Russian Red Army cavalry Commissar who is forced to stay with a Jewish family because she has become pregnant and is close to giving birth. We see in the film and also at times hear within the music a change of attitude from her as she mellows and embraces family life. The score is largely discordant but at the same time we are able to experience some lighter and less aggressive pieces within it. There are eleven sections included on the collection from the soundtrack and this and THE STORY OF AN UNKNOWN ACTOR are the total content of disc one. Disc two, opens with the first of five selections from the 1977 short film, CLOWNS AND KIDS, this I have to say is probably one of the most energetic scores represented on this glowing collection. Light and airy, it has a mischievous and devilishly amusing musical persona, filled with character and overflowing with robust and gloriously comedic passages that never cease to astound or entertain. It’s simple but Nino Rota like theme that maybe he would have written for Fellini runs throughout the score in varying arrangements that keep the listener interested upon each delightful delivery. THE WALTZ, is next in the running order and there are four pieces here to represent the score, basically this is a collection of a theme that is arranged into a waltz and also contains a homage to the Waltz King Strauss. Again the music is polished and appealing and wonderfully performed by The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, with the music being arranged by conductor Frank Strobel. The next four cues are from the 1968 short, THE GLASS HARMONICA, directed by Andrey Khrzhanovskiy, is an animated movie which contains a number of political undercurrents.
The citizens of a small town have become obsessed with money and are driven by it alone. Their obsession has transformed once caring and amiable people into greedy and corrupted individuals. This I think is a symbolic look at the capitalist West, because being produced in the 1960’s the Soviet Union were keen to portray the west and in particular the United States as ugly and greedy sub-humans. A craftsman who has made the glass harmonica arrives in the town and via his haunting performance on the instrument and the beautiful tune he plays, the people begin to return to their former selves, and become caring and loving people again. A nice thought but I don’t think this would work do you? Again Schnittke fashions a lilting central theme, but also brings into the equation a harsher and more harrowing sound which is realised via, strings, brass and an array of booming, rattling and jangling percussive elements, piano and percussion are effective in the track, THE FLIGHTS-PYRAMIDS, the combination of the bass drums and the dark and richly deep sounding piano is stunning. It is a threatening and rather sharp and abrasive sound that is achieved via this orchestration, again filled with a tense and urgent atmosphere.
Music from the 1977 Russian war movie THE ASCENT is next, the soundtrack and film being represented by just three sections, for the majority of the duration the music is non thematic, it is visceral and atonal, for me this is not the most pleasant of listening experiences, in fact I found it sounded a little experimental as in sections of the 1812 overture being played backwards and then mutated further, to create a sound that is very much like having a migraine as in pressurised and unrelenting but not actually doing much apart from being irritating. Obviously, the music worked in the context of the movie, but as a listening experience as just music, no not for me. It is however imposing and powerful in a similar fashion to that of the style of Britten. THE FAIRYTALE OF THE WANDERINGS or THE STORY OF VOYAGES as it was also known opens disc three, and here we are treated to ten pieces from the movie, a fantasy which has to it a dark and shadowy aura and a fairy-tale that was unusually produced for and aimed at the adult audience as opposed to being made for children like many others were in Russia. The score is made up of a collection of themes that one I suppose could categorise as being typical film music, there are jovial sounding musical romps plus outlandish and mischievous passages that are underlined and even shadowed by the more atonal and fearsome sounding material, at times the music purveying an almost icy atmosphere. But there are also up-tempo pieces which one would not think would be at home in a movie such as this, however on seeing a few of the scenes with the said up-beat sounds it works perfectly. Symphonic with what I perceive to be some electronic sounds, which are used more for effect than as musical instrumentation.
The FINALE is one of the more outstanding tracks with the haunting five note motif building into a full-blown crescendo that brings the score to a triumphant and glorious end in the style of a great ballet such as SWAN LAKE. Rudyard Kipling’s RIKKI TIKKI TAVI (1979) comes next with six tracks from the score which are delightful and affecting, aswell as being dramatic and emotive.
This time the composer goes for a more traditional approach and floods the score with rich themes which contain a certain amount of pomp and stiff upper lip as we focus upon the antics of the young Mongoose who a family rescue from drowning in a river and watch the animal loyally repay the families kindness by protecting them against two evil cobras. The final disc contains the music from two projects, SPORT, SPORT, SPORT (1970) a documentary and the comedy ADVENTURES OF A DENTIST (1987). Both are solid works in their own way with the documentary having a slight edge in the originality stakes. Overall this is a really interesting compilation and one I urge you to check out.