Alfred Schnittke

The caption for this article is a photo of Schnittke’s gravestone. The musical symbols are (top to bottom) a fermata (sustained or prolonged), a bar’s rest (silence, no playing) and triple forte (very, very loud)

Alfred Schnittke’s (1934-1998) music is definitely a creature of the later 20th century: often dark, vitriolic and strangely seductive. A pupil of Dmitri Shostakovich, he pushed harder against the Soviet establishment, writing music full of dissonance, m170px-Alfred_schnittkeordant sarcasm and absurdity. His mature pieces are often “polystylistic”, stitching together disparate styles (playing catch-me-if-you-can through musical history). Good examples are his first Concerti Grosso and the ballet score Labyrinths.

Latterly, after a series of strokes that left him gradually paralysed, Schnittke resorted to a more tonal, and somehow more bleak, style, such as in his Requiem. His music is a great companion when we’re dealing with the absurd side of life, living with idiot political systems or bureaucracy, or wondering where the point is in it all…

Tango from Life with an Idiot, beautifully interpreted on ice by Peter Tchernyshev and Xenia Alferov. Listen out, the moment at 2.13 where the music “dissolves” is classic Schnittke  

I talk about Schnittke in a previous article (The Rest is Noise: Behind the Iron Curtain). The portrait above was painted by Reginald Grey in 1972  

March 2017


Rafael Aguirre at the London Guitar Festival

At the closing night of the London International Guitar Festival, I found myself mulling over what the great Segovia once claimed: that “if people have a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them”.

Flamboyant temperament and mercurial technique define Rafael Aguirre, a Spanish guitarist who gave his UK debut that night at the Bolivar Hall. The venue is perfect for the guitar: a stylish, bijou concert hall downstairs at the Venezuelan Embassy.

Aguirre’s recital began with Bach’s D minor Chaconne. Immediately his rich tone and dynamic playing are compelling: adhering very firmly to a tempo a touch breathless, it was a powerful yet polite rendition. This was followed by William Walton’s Five Bagatelles. He lingered lovingly on these charming pieces, full of gently dissonant bite and very English character.

Villa-Lobos’ suite of 12 studies is one of the landmarks of the guitar repertoire, fusing a typically Brazilian character into a machine-like musical process. Rafael selected two etudes, no. 7 and 11, to close the first half of his recital. Out of context, we miss the crystallisation and dissolution of the suite, but enjoyed the cyborg charm of the etudes.

The second half had a Latin-Iberian bent, beginning with Un Sueno en la Floresta, a languorous dream related in scintillating tremolo, composed by the great guitarist Agustin Barrios. (Paraguay’s national composer, Barrios was a remarkable character, and posed as an Amazon Indian called Nitsuga for part of his career.) Antonio Lauro’s feisty Seis por derecho swung us towards Venezuela, and then across the Atlantic with an incandescent Guiajiras by Paco de Lucia. This was a less heady Flamenco than most, freckled with machine-gun scales: Aguirre pulled this off with virtuosic aplomb.

Francisco Tarrega’s slinky variations on the Carnival of Venice ended the concert. The father of the modern classical guitar, Tarrega was a legendary teacher and composer for the guitar, writing for salon audiences at the close of the 19th century. These variations can’t fail to charm: the guitar conjures bouts of laughter with petulant glissandi, a playful masquerade, full of winks.

All in all, I hesitate to say that it was a great recital – I was left with the impression that Rafael’s character could obstruct the music, rather than be its medium. But both music and musician had flair and an obvious head-over-heels love that, certainly, won me.

October 2013

a souvenir from Budapest

Half of the city owes itself to the absurd grandeur of imperial Europe, and the other half is a clod of bitter Soviet concrete. You gasp down Andrassy boulevard to the Heroes’ Square, which reminds you that Magyars were raiders with horses, furs, clubs and an expression of noble and lung-bursting rage. In front of you is a castle, a replica from one of those crenellated Transylvanian jobs you imagine sprouting like weeds over central Europe. People are kind, the Advent markets are built out of tinsel and look like a Christmas cake, the food warms you through quite. The best inheritance from its Turkish days are the wonderful bath houses, which leave you feeling boneless and amphibian.

The twin city leaves you with an aftertaste of snow, ballrooms, and goulash. From above, on Buda-side, it’s a confectionary spun with golden lights and filigree architecture. 
Below, we waltzed quite literally by the blue Danube – there, the city looks a blur of grander days.

December 2015

The Rest is Noise: Behind the Iron Curtain

Music underwent some drastic shifts in the last century, with its cultural earthquakes, wars and revolutions. Social systems broke down, and with them cultural institutions splintered: 20th century music is a history of shards, and this is what Alex Ross traced in his best selling narrative, The Rest is Noise. This book is the inspiration behind the festival running at the Southbank Centre, which certainly deserves our attention.

Shedding light on our recent history, Mikhail Jurowski and the London Philharmonic presented three works from composers who had lived and written under the Soviet regime: Gyorgy Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, and Alfred Schnittke.


Ligeti’s (aboveLontano came as a glance into the abyss: almost a wordless chorale. Its opalescent harmony submerged us in a pensive, spectral soundworld.

The orchestra were joined by German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser for a bitter rendition of Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto, commissioned by Rostropovich. The cello battles the orchestra, with its sinuous stealing of themes and oppressive dynamic. Sections of the concerto have no bars or beats: then the players must take their orders from the conductor. Moser’s performance was wonderfully vibrant, mordant, acerb and bitterly tragic.

A pupil of Shostakovich, Alfred Schnittke became a figure of the anti-establishment culture that grew at the downfall of the USSR. Attending concerts of his music was seen as dissident: Soviet strictures on music were ruthless. Jazz was decadent and bourgeoisie, atonality seen as an offense to solidarity: by comparison, Schnittke’s mighty First symphony is punk, and flouts it.


The orchestra files onstage like factotum to shrieks from the tubular bells (special mention goes to a tuba player who literally danced on). Schnittke’s (left) was a “polystylistic” style, gleaned from his composing for film: he steals from disparate genres like a magpie. Chorales, classical symphonies, Mahlerian recitatives and funereal serialism rub shoulders with a Jazz band, waltzes, tangos and military marches, all mashed together. There are titters of laughter; the wind section “dies”, walks offstage, is resurrected, and dies again; only one violinist, playing from Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, is left on stage. Schnittke claimed that he’d set down a chord and watch it dissolve under his fingers: disintegrating, disjointed lines of music contribute to mounting insanity, a real symphony of the absurd. It was performed with panache that drew bouts of laughter.

If we reply with a raised eyebrow or a despairing grin, this music surely deserves our attention, and the concert was a performance to remember, played with sincerity and humou. These pieces, a secret diary from behind the Iron Curtain, left me exhausted but enlivened: sometimes we need a certain vitriol to freshen our vision.


the photo caption for this article is the Soviet War Memorial, Budapest 

music and words

We get a bit put off by classical music, because it seems daunting and full of codes and facades, perhaps a little illegible. I don’t know the first thing about football, I haven’t kicked a ball for years: where would I begin, with all the teams, players and chants, home stadiums, famous games? Where would I begin with orchestras, great performers, composers, and famous symphonies?

Despite the facade, music brings so much good, when we get to know what we’re looking for. Then it feels like an old friend, a great mine of solace and fun and wise advice. It can help us feel understood in our problems, whatever they are – and help us feel bright through it all, and find hope. All we need is an introduction.