‘Ethel Merman of the apocalypse’: Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke’s mind-blowing Faustian bargain
07:49 pm

Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s chaotic modern classical music, a style he called “polystylism,” became widely known to Western audiences in the 1980s. He is considered by many to be among the ranks of the very most important late 20th composers.

From The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross.

In the cantata Seid nüchtern und wachet of 1983, a setting of the 16th-century History of Dr. Johann Faust, the gruesome scene of Faust’s going-under is delivered by a Satanically amplified mezzo-soprano: in the BIS recording, Inger Blom presides over a hectic cabaret orchestra like some Ethel Merman of the apocalypse.

It may not amount to “ordinary rock-music,” as the composer intended, but it manages to dumbfound listeners all the same. This cantata, one of Schnittke’s most viscerally thrilling pieces, will furnish material for an upcoming opera on Faust themes.

Schnittke said:

“Faust is the theme of my whole life, and I am already afraid of it. I don’t think I shall ever complete it.”

He did, although it took more than a decade (due to a stroke, Soviet travel restrictions and poor health generally) before Schnittke’s Historia von D. Johann Fausten was finally completed. It premiered in Hamburg in 1995. Alfred Schnittke died in 1998.

The clip below of the Faust cantata (VII. Es geschah (“It came to pass”) is taken from the BBC documentary The Unreal World Of Alfred Schnittke directed by Donald Sturrock in 1983. The performance is by the Malmö Symphony Chorus and Orchestra with Inger Blom, conducted by James DePreist

Thank you Michael Backes of Los Angeles, California!

Posted by Richard Metzger
07:49 pm
Khrzhanovsky’s ‘Glass Harmonica’: Subversive surrealist late-‘60s Russian animation

In the opening titles of his 1968 animated short Glass Harmonica, Russian director Andrei Khrzhanovsky claims to present a cautionary against “boundless greed, police terror, [and] the isolation and brutalization of humans in modern bourgeois society.” Of course, it was more complex than that.

At the time Khrzhanovsky made the film, Russian animation had experienced a creative renaissance that spanned most of the ‘60s, fuelled by the Soviet Union’s post-Stalinist liberalization policy best known as the Krushchev Thaw. Although that period yielded cutesy and colorful satires like Fyodor Khitruk’s 1962 short Story of a Crime, Glass Harmonica—which posits music to symbolize beauty repressed by avarice—stands apart.

Amid desolate modern landscapes, Khyrzhanovsky and his dozen animators tell the tale with some industrial age and Renaissance visual elements, along with some zany zoomorphic caricatures of paranoia and envy. Buoyed sonically by Alfred Schnittke’s Quasi una sonata and drawing from Breugel, Dali and George Dunning (the director of Yellow Submarine), Glass Harmonica reaches even proto-Python-esque heights towards the end.

Despite its semi-socialist utopian resolution, Glass Harmonica comes off as surprisingly quaint and archaic, even as an indirect product of Kruschev’s less ideologically rigid era.

After the jump: check out part 2 of Glass Harmonica

Posted by Ron Nachmann
06:09 pm