Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 30 March 2015

Schnittke Symphony No 3 Jurowski

SCHNITTKE Symphony No. 3
Vladimir Jurowski, cond; Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
PENTATONE 5186485 (SACD: 52:16)

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Vladimir Jurowski may be the ideal conductor for Schnittke’s Third Symphony. It is the music of a Russian composer, but of German descent, exploring German music musical traditions from both inside and out. Many Russian conductors miss the Classical poise behind Schnittke’s historical references, while Western conductors have a tendency to tame the more chaotic outbursts, to maintain that sense of order when chaos should reign. But Jurowski offers the best of both worlds. He has studied both in Russia and Germany and demonstrates a native competency in both musical languages. Of the many Russian conductors currently active in the UK, Jurowski is the only one who is praised as much for his Brahms and Wagner as for his Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff.
The symphony, which was composed for the opening of the new Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 1981, was one of the composer’s greatest triumphs. Schnittke dedicated the work to the “German symphonic tradition” and the music explores the history of German music from a range of angles. It opens with a gloss on the Rheingold Prelude, which then evolves into a complex texture based on musical monograms of German and Austrian composers’ names— a roll-call of the big players, all name checked in chronological order. The second and third movements also take a chronological approach, each taking a theme and presenting it in different historical styles. The second movement is the most explicit in its historical allusions, and all the more heterogeneous for it. The third explores the dark side of German culture, a diabolical scherzo in which the main theme is based on a monogram derived from the letters of “Das Böse” (evil). In the finale, Schnittke brings things up to date, at least up to the early 20th century, channeling Mahler and Berg, two of his greatest inspirations.
This is the third commercial recording of the Third Symphony. The first was made in 1984 by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra. It was released on Melodiya, but only seems to be available now on Spotify, at least in the UK. A second version was made by Eri Klas and the Stockholm Philharmonic, for BIS in 1989. That is still available, both separately and as part of the BIS box set of Schnittke’s symphonies. Until Jurowski, the Rozhdestvensky was the preferable option. Rozhdestvensky releases the primal power of this music. When Schnittke makes things messy, Rozhdestvensky ensures they are very messy, and that any redemption or clarity is only ever won with a struggle. That sense of embracing the irrational is also evident in some of the less chaotic music. He brings a unique feeling of disorientation to the ending of the first movement, dissolving the complex textures into a kind of timeless cloud of indistinct tones (and in the process making the movement two minutes longer than either of the competitors). That might be viewed as an acceptable interpretive decision, but what is more jarring is his brutal stylistic disjunctions in the second movement. He seems to be going for shock value here, where the composer is seeking something more subtle. The other major disadvantage of the Rozhdestvensky version is the poor quality of the orchestral playing, an issue evident when heard in isolation but brought into sharp relief by comparison with Jurowski’s Berlin players.
The Eri Klas recording is smoother. Klas takes a more symphonic approach, always finding ways to bring the juxtaposed styles into dialogue. But it lacks bite. For all his subtly, Schnittke does have his shock moments, especially in the third movement—sudden explosions of sound, lurid episodes of distorted electric guitars and flutter-tongued brass—and Klas’s take on these is always too civilized. It is better played than Rozhdestvensky’s though, and better recorded.
Vladimir Jurowski trumps both in almost every respect. His reading has the primordial power of Rozhdestvensky, but combined with the broader scope and symphonic coherence of Klas. Rozhdestvensky seems more at home in the chaos, and all the historical references, the Mozart piano concerto, the Beethoven wind chords (all stylistic allusions, there are no quotations) appear as external objects, in the music but not of the music. With Jurowski it is the other way round. He shapes and structures each of these devices as if he actually were conducting a Mozart concerto or a Beethoven symphony, bringing all those ideas into the heart of the work. The finale is particularly impressive, as Jurowski brings the full scope of his Mahlerian experience to bear on music that, in this recording, sounds as fine and as deep as anything in Mahler’s late symphonies.
The one movement where Rozhdestvensky trumps Jurowski is the third. Jurowski’s sense of order here becomes an impediment. This music needs to go closer to edge, to be pushed to excesses, to grate and roar. At the conclusion, the music builds to a huge climax, dense polyphony in which almost every player is doing something different, and all very loudly. But then it distills into just the BACH monogram, which in turn segues into the quiet opening of the finale. Rozhdestvensky makes this into a moment of divine, spiritual transcendence, while Jurowski settles for a smooth and otherwise eventless transition from one texture to the next.
That’s the only major disappointment here though. And it is commensurate with Jurowski’s general approach—to give us an engaged but faithful account of the score as written. Rozhdestvensky often seems idiosyncratic in comparison, which may be reason enough to make this new version the benchmark. But that is not all: The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra is on excellent form, and the SACD audio is first rate. Vladimir Jurowski is rapidly becoming the go-to conductor for Schnittke. He is one of the few conductors of his generation to share the passion and commitment to this music of the older conductors who worked with the composer himself. This is his first commercial recording of Schnittke’s music, and it bodes well. Most of Schnittke’s orchestral works are available on disc, but very few of those even approach the standards achieved here. Fingers crossed then, for many more Jurowski/PentaTone collaborations in this repertoire.

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