Gluzman Plays Beethoven & Schnittke

BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto. SCHNITTKE: Violin Concerto No. 3 / Vadim Gluzman, vln; Lucerne Symphony Orch.; James Gaffigan, cond / Bis SACD-2392

This unusual pairing of the well-known and widely-loved Beethoven Violin Concerto with a much less well-known violin concerto by Alfred Schnittke has produced results that one might find surprising.

Certainly, there were surprising to me as someone who has generally disliked most of Schnittke’s music, and that is that this particular piece is not only fascinating but very original (most of Schnittke’s music stole snippets and whole themes from older composers). The succession of trills played to bitonal harmonies, a cappella, that open the concerto is certainly one such feature, but in addition to this the music’s development and structure continue to hold one’s attention. Indeed, when the orchestra enters it seems to be playing “organ chords,” and stays in this vein for quite some time. The ebb and flow of the music is really quite extraordinary; after the opening flurry of trills, the solo violinist moves into a serrated melodic line that spurs the organ chords of the orchestra to move around like chess pieces on a board. Schnittke even uses some microtonal passages in the solo line, which adds further interest.

There is scarcely a moment in this entire concerto that does not interest the listener. For whatever reason, Schnittke’s inspiration was working in high gear when he wrote this piece, and it shows. Though divided into three movements, they are connected and thus almost sound like a continuous, inspired musical flow. In the second movement (“Agitato”), the orchestra finally moves away from its organ chords to produce some edgy, brass-and-reed-oriented chords that move fairly quickly up and down, in and out of various tonalities. It’s almost like being in a musical “fun house” where the walls and floor move and you’re not sure where to stand to avoid sliding down a stairway that suddenly turns into a smooth ramp under your feet. The final “Andante” calms things down a bit, giving us (at last) some tonal music to hang on to, but the mood is melancholy, not triumphant, with the violin playing its sad song against more edgy wind chords.

The reader will have noticed, however, that I skipped over Gluzman’s performance of the Beethoven concerto. That is because it is shockingly mundane in every respect. He plays it nicely but without much interest; it sounds like a good, professional read-through but not like a performance in which he cared much about the material. In addition, there is something strange about the orchestral accompaniment. It sounds thin and wan, with even the tympani strokes in the opening section coming across like finger taps on a snare drum. So between the poor-sounding orchestra and Gluzman’s lack of involvement in the solo part, it’s just “there.” It’s not particularly good.

A split review, then, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t have this Schnittke concerto (I didn’t), you need to get at least this portion of the CD and hear it. It’s fabulous. As for the Beethoven, I’ll take Christian Tetzlaff with the Deutsches Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati any day of the week.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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