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2023 is the 25th anniversary of the death of Alfred Schnittke, and the composer is subject of a special feature at Hamburg’s International Music Festival. Across four concerts in May the series explores chamber and orchestral works, culminating in his extraordinary Faust Cantata.

This year’s Hamburg International Music Festival at the Elbphilharmonie has a special focus on Alfred Schnittke, a composer with strong Hamburg connections. In 1990, the German-Russian composer migrated to the Hanseatic city and took up a position as Professor of Composition at the local university of music. Hamburg became his principal home city for the latter part of his life and it was there he died on 3 August 1998. By this time of his adoption of Hamburg, Schnittke was already established as a leading international figure in new music, famous for his polystylistic approach in which he could employ a variety of historic references within each single piece, making him a pivotal figure in musical post-modernism.

> Visit the Elbphilharmonie festival website

Schnittke’s German roots are explained by the heritage of both his parents. On his mother’s side he was of Volga German and Roman Catholic extraction, on his paternal side he was German-Jewish and his father had grown up in Frankfurt before moving to the USSR in 1927. Schnittke was born in 1934 and grew up in the German-speaking minority community along the banks of the Volga in the Saratov region. His sense that his background set him apart from the majority in the USSR was reinforced when, from 1945-48, his father was posted to Vienna, and the delighted boy discovered Austro-German cultural and musical traditions.

The relationship between Schnittke and the music of Mahler, prompted by those three years in Vienna, is explored in the first Hamburg concert on 7 May with the Karol Szymanowski Quartet and pianist Michail Lifits. The programme includes Schnittke’s Piano Quartet that grows out of Mahler’s only chamber work, the movement in A minor, together with the Piano Quintet, String Quartet No.3 and Suite in the Old Style. Schnittke was prompted to write: “Of all composers from past epochs, Mahler is the one I feel the closest kinship with”.

The second concert to feature Schnittke’s music, at the Elbephilharmonie on 16 May, sees the composer looking further back to baroque models for his Concerto Grosso No.1, the first of six works he was to write in this form. Featuring violinists Lena Neudauer and Julia Fischer leading the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the work is a classic example of Schnittke’s polystylism, combining contemporary sounds with filmic gestures, baroque quotations and tango, attempting to achieve a musical utopia that makes no distinction between ‘light’ and ‘serious’.

Alexander Melnikov’s piano recital on 17 May includes four Schnittke pieces in the company of works by Gubaidulina, Denisov and Chemberdgi. This protégé of the great Sviatoslav Richter offers Schnittke’s substantial four movement Piano Sonata No.3, composed in 1992, together with Improvisation and Fugue, Five Aphorisms and Three Fragments.

The Schnittke feature concludes with his spectacular ‘Faust’ Cantata ‘Seid nüchtern und wachet’ on 21 May presented by the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andris Poga with the Europa Choral Academy Görlitz. This blood-curdling take on the original Faust text by Johann Spies, combines thunderous organ, ringing bells and a raunchy tango sung by a mezzo chanteuse as the Devil claims Faust’s soul in full hellish technicolour.

Further background to Schnittke is provided on the Elbphilharmonie website through a detailed portrait by the Hamburg musicologist and journalist Lutz Lesle who met the composer many times in the city before his death.

> Read Lutz Lesle’s Portrait on Schnittke

Composer and musicologist Gerard McBurney has recently created a new introductory article on Schnittke, now viewable on our website area devoted to the composer at www.boosey.com/schnittke.

As well as this year’s 25th anniversary of death, next year brings the 90th anniversary of Schnittke’s birth on 24 November 2024.

>  Further information on Work: Seid nüchtern und wachet... [Faust Cantata]

Photo: Schnittke in Hamburg

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