Some composers get a word or phrase attached to them and it sticks like mud. For the German-Russian Alfred Schnittke (died 1998) it’s “polystylism”, descriptive of a magpie approach that borrows from many earlier styles but is also, to detractors, an admission of an eclecticism that borders on the parodic.
The South Bank’s splendid festival of Schnittke’s work, under the directorship of Vladimir Jurowski, allows audiences to make their own minds up about where they stand on this important but largely undervalued twentieth century artist.
“Polystylistic” is certainly apt for the 3rd String Quartet, of which an ebullient platform performance by the Harpham Quartet opened the programme at the Festival Hall (strictly speaking the first event was off-site at the Royal College of Music last weekend). It’s an entertaining work but maybe too reliant on forms drawn from Renaissance polyphony, classical-cum-romantic music and Shostakovich.
The evening’s main event, a performance of chunks of Schnittke’s late magnum opus, the opera The History of Dr Johann Faustus, also showed plenty of evidence of what the programme notes call “a mixture of old and new styles, of modern, postmodern, classical, baroque and popular music ideas.”
Stripped of the campery of the original Hamburg production in 1995 (in which the counter-tenor Mephistophiles appeared as a demented Liberace, playing a pink piano with smoke pouring from it), this “semi-staging” (effectively executed by Annabel Arden) showed it as a work of greater gravitas.
There are inherent dramatic weaknesses in a work that relies too heavily on narration, by a Greek-style chorus as well as a designated narrator (tenor Markus Brutscher), and the origins of the third act as the earlier Faust Cantata is only too apparent. With the greater seriousness came a lessening of the humour of the Hamburg performance, although the hectoring of Faust by the multi-voiced devil in Act Two raised a few chuckles.
There’s some splendid music weaving in and out of the otherwise inert dramaturgy, curtailed here by a substantial section of the opera’s middle (Faust’s journies to other worlds and encounter with Helen of Troy) being cut.
Stephen Richardson was a powerful and sympathetic Faust and Brutscher a forceful Narrator. Subtle amplification was unobtrusive most of the time but one questions its necessity, as orchestral/vocal balance seemed pretty good anyway.
Dark-voiced Anna Larsson was a lean Mephistophila, revelling in the garish tango, to which she drags Faust to hell, while her male counterpart (the always excellent Andrew Watts) cavorted in high heels. The Chamber Choir of the Moscow Conservatory gave superb support.
As with Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus at this year’s Proms, an opportunity was missed for London audiences to hear a rare opera in its complete form. There was plenty of justification, theming-wise, stylistically and indeed marketing-wise, for performing the extracts (some 65 minutes) alongside Haydn’s Symphony 22 and the Prelude and Good Friday music from Parsifal but what a shame we couldn’t have heard the whole of Schnittke’s work while they were at it. It’s fair to point out that the Hamburg premiere, at some 100 minutes, also cut a good third of the opera.
That aside, Jurowski and his associates did justice to the composer (the LPO on sparkling form) and got this two week series off to a flying start.