By Jonathan Blumhofer
Fiddler Daniel Hope’s new all-Schnittke disc with pianist Alexey Botvinov brings with it a level of authority that demands respect.
When it comes to the music of Alfred Schnittke, violinist Daniel Hope is an old hand: the 20th-century Russo-German composer’s music has featured prominently in Hope’s repertoire for decades. So the fiddler’s new all-Schnittke disc with pianist Alexey Botvinov for the Yellow Label brings with it a level of authority that demands respect.
Musically, it’s a riveting collection. The selections are generous and span a wide range, chronologically (from the 1963 Sonata no. 1 to 1990’s Madrigal in Memoriam Oleg Kagan) and stylistically. Indeed, the disc is programmed around the Sonata and Madrigal which, gritty as they are, serve as an anchor about which the more accessible fare orbits.
Schnittke’s Sonata no. 1 ably channels the bleakness of Shostakovich’s late-middle style with its mix of slashing extremes, contrasts of humor and desolation, and moments of soaring lyricism. Hope and Botvinov turn in a vibrant, colorful performance of the piece, one that captures much of the hardness of Schnittke’s style but without devolving into ugliness.
Indeed, there’s plenty of personality to be found in this reading: Hope has a potent handle on the middle movements, especially the haunting, senza vibrato opening to the third. Botvinov’s playing revels in the music’s extended techniques as well as its mischievous turns (like the keyboard’s thudding boogie-woogieish riffs in the finale).
In contrast, the solo-violin version of the Madrigal proves about as grim as can be: spare, fragmented ideas resolve into sustained notes; snatches of melodic lines come and go; the intensity of the music never wavers. Hope plays it with a focus that’s hard to beat, but the piece’s nihilism means it remains a tough nut to crack.
More approachable is the popular 1972 Suite in the Old Style, which opens the proceedings. A five-movement arrangement of music from Schnittke’s film scores repurposed as a sequence of archaic genre pieces, it’s as easy on the ears as the Madrigal is challenging. Hope and Botvinov are ideal guides through its graceful “Pastorale,” dashing “Ballet,” lilting “Minuet,” sardonic “Fugue,” and droll “Pantomime.”
Textural clarity and attention to detail are their watchwords. Just listen for the lively exchange of musical ideas in the “Ballet,” the clarity of the duple-against-triple rhythms of the “Minuet,” and the impellent drive of the “Fugue.”
Hope’s playing is sweet-toned and rock-solid, pitch-wise, throughout, while Botvinov brings a light-but-robust touch to it all (his low-register playing in the “Ballet” is nothing short of brilliant). It adds up to a less-than-ironic take on the Suite but one that neatly showcases the music’s lyrical sweep and solid construction.
The pair take a similar interpretive approach to the album’s remaining fare: a spirited Polka (arranged from Schnittke’s 1980 Gogol Suite) and Tango (from the 1974 film Agony) follow the Suite; to close the disc are the Mozart-esque Gratulationsrondo (from 1974) and Schnittke’s ominous 1978 arrangement of Stille Nacht.
In each of these, Hope’s and Botvinov’s playing remains more straightforward than not, underemphasizing the sarcastic edge that is very much a part of Schnittke’s style. That’s not to say things are stiff or dull — the Tango, for instance, swoons and Stille Nacht is at once beguilingly warm and totally unsettling — just that these performances are, broadly speaking, restrained and elegant. As such, these readings may not be to all tastes.
That said, as in the Suite, downplaying some of the essentially superficial aspects of Schnittke’s writing serves to highlight its musical and structural qualities. That’s something of a daring approach in this repertoire and it pays dividends here: these are conspicuously refreshing performances (particularly of the Gratulationsrondo and Stille Nacht) as much as they are emotionally satisfying ones.
In all, then, a most welcome release.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.