TALLINN - Alfred Schnittke’s Cello Concerto was a question of life or death. Composed before and after his first of five strokes in 1986, his heart had stopped and doctors had pronounced the stroke fatal. Coming back, they advised him to avoid composing, not realizing that writing music was his fragile life’s purpose.
In the late 1970s Alfred Schnittke was probably the most commissioned composer in the West. In Russia it was said that all performances of his music were important events for Soviet audiences. In his music they found spiritual values that were absent from everyday life during the endless years of “terror,” “thaw,” “cold war,” and “stagnation.” His popularity since his death in 1998 has only increased.
Schnittke might be best known for his concertos; four violins, two cello, viola, and piano among others. All the concertos seem to illustrate a complicated tension between the individual (represented by the soloist) and society (the orchestra). In his own way, Schnittke gave a voice to the individual in Soviet society.
He entrusted and dedicated his Cello Concerto to Natalia Gutman. She became responsible for articulately communicating these “absent spiritual values” to listeners. This is not a task to be accepted lightly. Throughout her career, however, Gutman premiered, performed, and championed many pieces for cello by seminal Soviet composers including Sofia Gubaidulina and Estonia’s Arvo Part.
Hers is an imposing biography: born in Kazan, she graduated from the Moscow Conservatoire under Mstislav Rostrapovich - arguably the most important musician in the 20th century. By 25, she had performed with the world’s foremost: Kurt Masur, Claudio Abbado, and Riccardo Muti. She had won and become laureate of five major international competitions. She had solidified her position as one of the most remarkable performers on the stage. Since, her name has become renowned. Her recordings of the Shostakovich, Schumann, and Dvorak concertos are now library staples. A legacy of Rostropovich, champion of the 20th century Russian canon, it’s hard to overstate her stature or command of Schnittke’s music.
But why does the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra pair Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony with Schnittke’s Cello Concerto? At first glance they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Here’s why. Schnittke greatly admired the Viennese Classical tradition: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. This was the compass that pointed the direction of his own style and voice - many of his pieces assume Classical forms and demeanors. Schnittke even composed a cadenza for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which soloists perform regularly. In a way, this pairing is a test. Will Schnittke’s Cello Concerto, itself a nod to the Classical tradition, hold-up against a piece that is definitive of it?
The Eroica was meant as a celebration of Napoleon Bonaparte, the symphony’s original dedicatee. Beethoven considered Napoleon the triumphant hero; the embodiment of the French Revolution and its ideals. This changed when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor of France. Beethoven is said to have torn the title page from the Eroica manuscript and scratched Napoleon’s name from it so viciously, he tore a hole. The Eroica is punctuated by discord - rhythmic and tonal. It is forward thinking, it redefines the rules of structure. It’s clever, despairing, ironic, and robust.
The funeral march of the second movement has become immortalized. It was played at Felix Mendelssohn and Franklin Roosevelt’s funerals. The Olympic committee chose it to accompany the memorial service for the victims of the 1972 massacre. It has become as recognizable as the opening motif of the first movement. Leonard Bernstein mused that perhaps these two were the best symphonic movements ever composed.
Schnittke’s Concerto somehow reconciles these two opposing aspects of the Eroica; the triumphant and the tragic. In its own way, Schnittke’s Concerto is also a celebration; a celebration of the individual in a society that constantly seeks to represse it. However, it’s simultaneously a memorial to those whose voices are lost or not heard. It reconciles this opposition maddeningly, with feverish virtuosity, and with relentless responsibility chained to the soloist. It’s an exhausting endeavor, physically and emotionally, for orchestra, conductor, and cellist alike; but few have regaled these passages as poignantly as Gutman. As consolation, the concerto’s final movement is a hymn, one of defiance and optimism. A hymn that humbly transcends heroics and reminisces of bringing us back to earth. “Suddenly,” said Schnittke, “I was given this finale from somewhere, and I’ve just written it down.”
Andres Mustonen and The Estonian National Symphony Orchestra perform Schinittke’s Cello Concerto with Natalia Gutman and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Eroica on Nov. 16 at Estonia Concert Hall.