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“Consoling and Enraptured” – Alfred Schnittke’s First Cello Concerto in Hamburg

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra was performed on 14 and 15 September 2008 at Laeisz Hall in Hamburg by David Geringas, cellist and close friend of the composer, and the NDR Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Christoph von Dohnányi. Alfred Schnittke died ten years ago in his adopted home city of Hamburg. The NDR concert is part of a series of homage events and will also include a small Schnittke Festival at the Hamburg Music Academy.

The daily newspaper DIE WELT commented on the NDR concert as follows:

“The film director Volker Schlöndorff quickly made up his mind when he was searching for the appropriate music for his film “The Ninth Day” (released in 2004 and awarded the German Film Prize) and happened upon Alfred Schnittke’s First Cello Concerto. He needed music that would reflect the innermost struggles of a person and that would be desperate, aggressive, consoling, enraptured and inwardly torn all at the same time. Music that could illustrate the fictitious drama of the Catholic priest Abbé Kremer, who would have had to pay for his flight from the national socialists with the death of a colleague imprisoned in a concentration camp if he had not courageously returned to the camp after the allowed time limit of a day parole. Some concert-goers at the first subscription concert of the NDR Symphony Orchestra at the Musikhalle on Monday perhaps thought of this film when the 62-year-old Lithuanian cellist David Geringas played Alfred Schnittke’s First Cello Concerto in honour of his friend Schnittke, who died in Hamburg ten years ago. One needs no images, however, to immediately understand both the disturbing and the reconciling aspects of Schnittke’s gripping musical language.

One could sense in every phrase how often Geringas has played the First Cello Concerto, mentally dissecting its fragile sonic corset and reassembling it in passionate tones. He clearly formed the simple motivic gesture at the beginning of the Pesante movement, which from then on floated uncontrollably through the sonic space of the orchestra, taking on a life of its own. He ravishingly developed the enormous intensifications in the Moderato movement, the plateau-like layering of sound masses and ever-higher spiralling tone pillars which had the effect of having to overcome ever-stronger resistances. Compared to the interpretations of his colleagues Natalia Gutman or Mstislav Rostropovich, Geringas gave the work more warmth and intimacy, indeed developing a density up until the final movement, Largo, in which a long dialogue with the solo tympani was followed by apparently medieval hymnal double-stop sections and a solemnly redemptive Finale. Christoph von Dohnányi and the NDR Symphony Orchestra supported the taut texture of Geringas’ conception, sensitively perceiving the fading-out of some full orchestral outbursts and savouring the orchestral writing (at times reminiscent of Messiaen’s colourful richness) to the full.

Schnittke began his First Cello Concerto in 1985 before his first devastating stroke and completed it immediately afterwards. It is certainly correct to hear, in this work marking a momentous turning point in Schnittke’s life, traces of premonitions of death, a sinking into an apparently timeless state and numerous dreamlike (or nightmarish) sequences. But it is also equally correct to regard it as a creative caesura, in which the previous compositional means culminated and a transformation took place in the composer, completely independently of the consequences of the stroke. (…)”

(DIE WELT, 17 September 2008)