Rose’s Turn

Charlie Rose plays an inordinately large role in my life*.  He is quasi avuncular – sometimes a chum, sometimes a father-confessor.  In the space of a single interview – a single question, really – he can be simultaneously awkward and brilliant, bored and engaged.  To gaze upon him is to know that he is a man of intense contrasts: how can one man look so boyishly handsome and so ruthlessly haggard at the same time?

*[in my head]

Charlie is my particular subject today because he’s been giving a lot of love to the classical music world lately, but we’ll get to that in just a second.  I want to pause here to state publicly that even though I will fight valiantly to make sure cuff links remain a vital part of the male wardrobe, I love that Charlie just doesn’t wear them.  In fact, sometimes he won’t even bother to button his ordinary cuffs:

And in that picture, he was in London for goodness’ sake!  Ok though, enough about Charlie’s clothes. [And trust me, I could go on.]  Charlie has always been a great friend to the classical music community, but there’s been a recent spate of interviews that I’d like to talk about.  Let’s begin with the most interesting:

Valery Gergiev, in his 2nd or 3rd appearance on Rose, gave a blisteringly efficient and wide-ranging interview.  This was the Charlie Rose broadcast at it’s best: engaging, insightful, convivial, mutually respectful.  Plus, if anybody has ever embodied the phrase “rakishly handsome”, it would Valery Gergiev – which is astonishing in a world where we have Charlie Rose! [see above]  Let’s just say, this was a meeting of equals.

Bar none, the most interesting part of this interview was the last five minutes, in which Charlie posed Gergiev one of the most surprising questions I’ve ever heard him ask: Who are the 5 (or 6) most important living composers in your eyes?

The reason for my surprise is that there are so few people in this world who are in any way interested living composers (the concert/art/academic kind, that is).  Charlie Rose could not possibly have expected to recognize any of the names on Gergiev’s list (unless happened to fall under the elusive “unknown known” category), and yet he asked the question.  I have never loved him more.

Let’s take a look and listen to Gergiev’s list of composers, shall we?

Rodion Shchedrin

Shchedrin is an interesting choice, I’d say.  Most Westerners, if they’ve ever heard of this composer at all, have only heard of one piece: the “Carmen Suite”, a sort of cartoonish, barbaric Russian ballet-fantasia on themes from Bizet’s Opera:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Shchedrin is often compared to Schnittke, and it’s not an unwarranted (though don’t get me wrong, I know Alfred Schnittke, and Rodion Shchedrin is no Alfred Schnittke).  At his poppier moments, Shchedrin sort of comes off as Schnittke-meets-John-Williams.  Gergiev makes a compelling case for the composer on his new album:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Henri Dutilleux

Dutilleux came as a surprise a) because I honestly did not know that he was still alive, and b) it’s not that he’s necessarily a bad composer, but I’ve never known anyone to be a major fan or champion of his music, and I certainly had no inkling that Gergiev might be that person (say in the way that Kent Nagano and Olivier Messiaen are associated w/ each other).

I’ve always thought of Dutilleux as a sort of solid but not terribly interesting mid-2oth century modernist.  I don’t know much [his] of music, so perhaps that’s not fair.  Give a listen and see what you think – this is the opening movement of his “Metaboles” and is the piece I’m most familiar with by him:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Alexander Raskatov

Raskatov is Gergiev’s near exact contemporary (they were born like 2 months apart).  Raskatov has actually figured prominently on this blog before.  Allow me to job your memory: he is the very person who painstakingly reconstructed Alfred Schnittke’s 9th Symphony.  This was no easy job, and by all accounts, he did very, very thorough work.  I mean, the piece that we can hear today sounds like Schnittke, and it’s all because of him.  Respect.

The Schnittke symphony was released on CD and that’s how Raskatov first came to my attention.  You see, he included a new piece, a Nunc Dimittis in Memoriam Alfred Schnittke (or Alfredom Schnittkom, I think, if we’re being correct about our Russian grammar.)  And it’s like, honestly, can you hardly blame the guy if he wants to put his own piece on this album after doing all that work?  I can’t – I’m sure I would have done the same thing.  And it’s not that it’s a bad piece.  It’s very Schnittkey, but you know, it’s just not going to come off so amazing in comparison when you pit it against this amazing transcendent work by an artist who was already halfway to the grave.  Here’s maybe my favorite section:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Thomas Adès

With all due respect to Gergiev’s Ruskii compatriots, I would have started my list with Thomas Adès.  Adès is arguably the most important, greatest, most tubular -whatever adjective you want to use- composer of concert music we have around these days.  And it’s not a hard argument to make.  Whether we all choose to realize or admit it, we composers today are living in the shadow of Ligeti.  (In Russia, Schnittke is the looming presence.  Give it time, and he will creep westward.)

Despite this pervasiveness, Adès is really the only major figure who is seriously grappling with the specter of Ligeti.  And he’s none the worse for wear.  Here is the first movement of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, about a minute in:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

and here is the opening of Thomas Adès’:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

It’s not that the two pieces sound all that similar – my point is that they seem to inhabit a similar universe but they are worlds unto themselves.  The act of homage is subtle: both composers build rhythmically complex textures that are nonetheless extremely quiet; the effect is a luminescent haze of sound.

I think it’s significant that not only that Adès handles himself adeptly in a dialogue with Ligeti but that he’s chosen late Ligeti as his conversant [I might mention that Adès' concerto also shares aspects with Ligeti's Hamburg Concerto.]  Again, he’s not an imitator or a provocateur or anything like that – he’s got a very strong singular talent, perhaps one of the few strong enough to really grapple with Ligeti’s writing.


As for Charlie’s interviews with Vittorio Grigolo and Antonio Pappano, I’ll just point out a few things:

1) Grigolo might be the most Italian Italian person I’ve ever heard.  No offense to my Italian friends, but they tend to say in about 100 words what they could manage in 10.

2) You just know that right before the cameras started rolling, Charlie made Vittorio coach him on the correct Italian pronunciation of his name. Charlie really tried to retain this knowledge as he introduced his guest, and though this was definitely his most valiant effort yet at a foreign pronunciation, it still comes out gloriously mangled.

2) Plus, if you skip ahead to 16:42, you’ll see that Vittorio loves Charlie, and so do I.

3) Watch Antonio Pappano at the beginning of the show as Charlie is introducing him.  Do you see him subtly lip syncing the whole speech?  That’s kind of really weird, right?

4 Comments


Schnittke Symphony No. 9

schnittke-9

Despite continuing poor health, the composer forges ahead with ambitious plans: an opera based on the life of Gesualdo for the Vienna State Opera, and an Eighth Symphony for the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who led the dangerous premiere of the First in 1974. He is close upon the mystical symphonic number nine, and might deserve whatever greatness it mythically confers.

Those are the words of Alex Ross from an interview on February 10, 1994 in the New York Times.  The premiere recording of Schnittke’s 9th symphony has just been released by ECM and my pre-ordered copy arrived in yesterday’s mail.  The story of Schnittke’s 9th symphony is as fraught with drama as any of the other great Nines.  He composed it after his third stroke (also in 1994) which left the entire right side of his body paralyzed.  With great agony, he scrawled the three completed movements using his left hand (see above).

Even the old Bruckner trick of disowning an early Symphony (Schnittke’s “No. 0″) didn’t allow the composer to escape the curse of the ninth: he died on August 3, 1998 from his fourth and final stroke at the age of 63.  I don’t think there is a more poetic version of the ninth symphony story from any of the other composers who lived through it (Beethoven, Bruckner, Mahler).

[OK, Mahler comes close... and as for Bruckner's supposedly incomplete 9th, I think he should really be content with the 3 movements that already total 60 minutes of music.]

Schnittke never heard a performance of his 9th symphony.  In fact, the rest of the story of his 9th lends even more poignancy to the tale.  Before Schnittke died, the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky prepared a so-called “performing edition” of the 9th, in which he interpolated quotes from historical works by other composers.  Where he found his authority to do so is a mystery.  The composer Matthias Kriesberg continues:

Schnittke was too ill to attend the performance; those close to him report that when he heard a tape, he was livid at the corruption. Some 10 days later, he suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. The Ninth Symphony was originally scheduled for the same Concertgebouw concerts as the Eighth, but performances of this version are now forbidden by the estate.

That was in a 1999 article.  The next step was for Irina Schnittke, the composer’s widow, to find a composer who could decipher the manuscript and come up with a real performing version.  She first turned to one of Schnittke’s close associates, Nikolai Korndorf.  Within months after setting to work on the project, Mr. Korndorf contracted a brain tumor and died.  Spooky.

Finally, Irina turned to to Alexander Raskatov, a Russian composer born in 1952.  Mr. Raskatov apparently purchased a “special magnifying glass” and set to work.  I do not envy his task — how could one possibly be sure of the composer’s intentions given the state of the manuscripts?  Unlike the completion of Mozart’s Requiem though, which was basically a collaborative composition, Schnittke’s work was “clearly conceived and committed to paper with admirable completeness” (Helmut Peters’ liner notes).  Mr. Raskatov’s role was to decipher the text as written.

So, does it sound like Schnittke?  Yes and no.  But Raskatov himself said:

I know that Alfred Schnittke considered his Ninth Symphony to be a work apart and completely dissimilar to his preceding symphonies.  As Irina Schnittke expressed it, he wrote this symphony as it were ‘for his departure’.

Well, I can say that I know of no other symphony that starts with this kind of a gesture:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

In fact, I can’t even imagine starting a symphony like this.  I think it is nearly impossible to interpret this piece without reference to mortality, but whereas Dennis Russell Davies comments that this is “a testament by someone who knows he’s dying,” I have a different view: I think this is music of someone who is already dead — as Schnittke had been, having been pronounced clinically dead on several occasions during his strokes.  Much of the music sounds like the exploratory wanderings of a ghost during his first encounter with a new, otherworldly universe:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Towards the end of the large (20 minute) first movement, during a rather more violent episode, the horns section has an extremely high soli that to me is very reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s pieces from the ’90′s:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The timbre reminds me very much of the ocarinas that Ligeti uses in the Violin Concerto and other pieces.  No offense to the members of the horn section of the Dresdner Philharmonie.

The second movement proves that, at the very least, Raskatov deciphered Schnittke’s instrumentation correctly:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

It just wouldn’t be the Schnitt without that harpsichord in there.

One question I keep coming up against is the total number of movements Schnittke intended for this symphony.  In all of the articles and liner notes, reference is always made to the “three completed movements,” but there is no mention of the composer’s intentions on how he might have finished the piece.  Here’s how the third movement ends:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To me, this sounds awfully final.  But with Schnittke, there is no use in trying to predict what he would or would not do: he was a law unto himself.

The more I listen to this symphony, the more I am intrigued by it.  It is a delicate work, to be sure, and I think there is a lot of richness to keep exploring in its nuances.  However, I sincerely doubt that it will in any way replace the special position that the 8th symphony holds in my heart.  I think Schnittke’s 8th may be the pinnacle of musical art.  In that piece, Schnittke sustains the most mystical of moods from start to finish, terrifying us in the first movement, torturing us in the second, ravishing us in the third, unnerving us in the fourth, and leaving us to contemplate all of eternity in the fifth, a movement that must stand completely alone in the history of music as the only symphonic movement dedicated solely to the slow amassing of a single chord:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Now go back and listen to the beginning of the 9th and see if it doesn’t sound like the view from the other side.

Comments Off