Schnittke: Symphony No. 8; The Census List Suite

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COMPOSERS: Schnittke
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 8; The Census List Suite
PERFORMER: Lev Butenin (reciter); Russian State SO/Valeri Polyansky
Alfred Schnittke reached new depths of lacerating bleakness in his Eighth Symphony. At times it sounds like a post-Mahlerian symphony radically pared down – contrapuntal sinews and harmonic flesh stripped away, only bone remaining. It’s hard listening, chastening even, and yet there are moments – glimmers of tonal consolation in the slow movement, the half-aspiring rising scales at the end – where a hint of something positive sneaks under the barbed wire. It reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s remark that it’s impossible to express complete despair, because the very act of expressing flies in the face of complete negation – in other words, ‘While I breathe, I hope’. The performance is remarkable: precise, and with concentrated intensity in even the most skeletal phrases. The slightly soupy acoustic adds a touch of Romantic warmth – whether Schnittke would have wanted that or not, I can’t say. The Suite from The Census List is hard going for other reasons. For those who endured Soviet socialism it was probably blisteringly funny, but Schnittke’s absurdist humour can be very heavy-handed – he was never a wit of the order of Shostakovich. Excellent performances though, and the recording makes sure we miss nothing. Stephen Johnson