The fifth program in Juilliard's Focus 2014 series, and the second I attended, consisted of chamber pieces composed by Schnittke and his circle of associates.
The first half of the program was a potpourri of short works. It started off with Schnittke's Homage to Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich (1979), a piano piece composed for six hands. Though the work may have lacked substance, it did display a great deal of humor as it parodied the styles of the three great Russian composers. It was also definitely entertaining to watch three pianists crowded at the same keyboard and trying hard not to get in one another's way.
There followed Trio for Three Trumpets (1976) by Sofia Gubaidulina. On the few occasions I've heard Gubaidulina's music I've experienced difficulty in appreciating it. To me, it has always seemed more noise than music. No doubt this is a failing on my part, not the composer's. The program claims the work creates a "complex polyphony from uniformity," but I am just not able to hear it.
Pianist Fanya Lin then played two short pieces by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov - Elegy (1976/1999), and Hymn - 2001. Of the two, I great preferred Hymn which seemed to me a throwback in miniature to the great piano works of the nineteenth century. In fact, the bulk of Silvestrov's work seems to consist of these short piano pieces that possess a very attractive sound but are too limited in scope and length to provide for the development of any of Silvestrov's own musical ideas. At best, they succeed in their limited format by calling to mind the works of far greater composers from a distant era.
Concluding the first half, countertenor Eric Jurenas sang two works by Arvo Pärt. The first, entitled Es sang vor langen Jahren (So Many Years Ago) and based on a text by Clemens von Brentano, was sung to the accompaniment of violin and viola while the second, My Heart's in the Highlands, based on the famous poem by Robert Burns, was accompanied by electric organ. They were both very moving pieces that examined the theme of loneliness from very much the same perspective. Their aching Romanticism was a good match for Pärt's spiritual style of composition.
The second half of the program consisted of only one work, Schnittke's String Quartet No. 4 (1989). This is a long piece (about 40 minutes) and very dense. Although comprised of five distinct movements, these do not seem so clean cut from one another but rather an expression of a single voice that continues on through the length of the work. As in many of Schnittke's later works, there is an overwhelming sense of despair that underlies the music and gives it its great poignancy. It is quite clearly the work of a man who knows he is dying. But there is never any trace of self pity or false sentimentality here. Rather, it as though Schnittke has moved beyond his theories of composition in order to create a summation of what he has learned from life through his music. The work possesses a sincerity that cannot leave the listener's heart untouched.