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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Schnittke Fest Ends on Grand Note

The festival celebrating composer Alfred Schnittke's 60th birthday reached a glorious conclusion at the Moscow Conservatory on Wednesday evening, when a trio of illustrious string players joined forces with 16 members of the Russian National Orchestra for the world premiere of Schnittke's "Concerto for Three."

Moscow's artistic elite turned out in force for the concert, with a particularly large contingent from the world of film and theater, to which Schnittke contributed so many imaginative scores during the earlier part of his career. Ill health prevented the composer's traveling from his home in Hamburg to attend the festival's finale. But his greetings and thanks to both players and audience were touchingly conveyed in a letter from his wife, Irina, which was read aloud before the concluding number.

The new Concerto, composed last June and dedicated to Wednesday's three soloists, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, violinist Gidon Kremer and violist Yury Bashmet, turned out to be an intense and compelling work of 20 minutes' duration. Beginning with a restless movement for Rostropovich and the orchestra's cellists, it moved on to a lyrical andante for Bashmet and a plaintive adagio for Kremer. All three soloists and the full orchestra then joined in relentless finale, brought up short by a sudden crashing chord of an otherwise silent piano, rendered by the evening's conductor and noted pianist, Mikhail Pletnyov. For their encore, the three soloists played twice through a brief and whimsical serenade composed simultaneously with the Concerto.

Wednesday evening began with Rostropovich as the sterling soloist in Schnittke's 1990 Second Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, which the great cellist once declared to be the most technically difficult work he had ever played. Pletnyov and a full complement of the Russian National Orchestra accompanied in suitably precise fashion.

It was gratifying to find a packed house at the Conservatory last Saturday evening for the festival's less glamorous penultimate concert. On that occasion, Valery Polyansky led the State Symphonic Cappella of Russia in readings of three earlier Schnittke works: "In Memoriam," the 1978 orchestral version of the Quintet for Piano and Strings, which was written several years before on the death of the composer's mother; the 1979 Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra, a puzzling work which sets harsh chords from the piano against a background of lushly romantic-sounding strings -- a sort of "John Cage meets Sergei Rachmaninoff"; and the Cantata "The History of Doctor Johann Faustus," written in 1983.

Schnittke has long been fascinated by the Faust legend and has now composed an entire opera on the subject, slated for a world premiere next June in Hamburg. His 35-minute Cantata is an engrossing piece of drama, and if the forthcoming "Faustus" is nearly as good a piece, Schnittke should at long last find himself with a success on the operatic stage.

Last Saturday's orchestra, the State Symphonic Cappella, under Polyansky's excellent leadership, currently offers some of the best playing in Moscow. With Shostakovich's mighty Tenth Symphony on the program, its concert next Thursday at the Conservatory could well turn out to be a memorable occasion.

Returning to the Schnittke festival, it must be said that the entire affair has proved a magnificent success. That seven such large-scale, well-rehearsed and frequently inspired evenings of music could take place at all in these times of drastically reduced governmental subsidies was due in no small part to private-sector support from Moskoviya Bank, Aeroflot and Delta Air Lines, as well as to services donated by a number of artists, including Rostropovich, Kremer, Bashmet and conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

Above all, the festival has again confirmed Alfred Schnittke as the possessor of one of the most original and inventive artistic minds of the late 20th century, and as a contemporary composer of classical music with the very rare ability to speak out and reach the hearts of his audience.