Pity the poor viola player. Not only the butt of so many unwelcome jokes, but deprived (like the bassoon) of a large solo repertoire. Alfred Schnittke, who himself inhabited the shadows of Soviet society after grappling with official disapproval, knew what it was like to be an underdog. Nevertheless, he ended up writing some 20 concertos for the leading Soviet artists of the day, of which the Viola Concerto occupies a very special place. Shortly after completing it in the summer of 1985 the composer suffered a severe stroke from which he never properly recovered. Schnittke later wrote: “Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement)”.

Antoine Tamestit and Teodor Currentzis
© Daniel Dittus

Written for Yuri Bashmet, whose name in German notation (B flat-A-E flat-C-B-E) yields a recurring six-note idea at the start of the work, the concerto was blessed with an equally fine interpreter here in Antoine Tamestit, accompanied by the SWR Symphony Orchestra under Teodor Currentzis. It is fiendishly difficult to play, not only because the solo instrument is the major protagonist over the course of its 35 minutes (with hardly more than a few bars rest) and is the centre of attention throughout, but also because of the extremes of colour, dynamics and tempo required by the composer.

Already in the short first movement the passionate intensity of Tamestit’s playing and his purity of tone were exceptional. This work is a study in suffering. It is not hard to see behind the many sad and disconsolate passages both the collective suffering of the Russian people for most of the 20th century (from Tsarist repression through Stalinist terror to dehumanisation within the Soviet system) but also the individual human being who experiences pain as something very personal. The darkness of mood is reflected in the orchestration: there are no violins and flecks of caliginous colour come from soft-toned clarinets, bassoons and trombones. Currentzis had grouped the large number of percussion players (including piano, harpsichord and xylophone) on his immediate left, so that these exchanges with the soloist achieved a rare chamber-like delicacy. In the Allegro molto middle movement the sharpness of the rhythms and the anguished Expressionist chords (half-remembered from Schoenberg’s Erwartung) provided a chilling contrast to the moments of lyrical intensity in which Tamestit’s solo voice radiated utter identification with the music. Towards the end of the longest movement, the Largo finale, where the thematic fragments begin their process of disintegration, the gong and tubular bells emerged like an accompanying death-knell, the material echoing a morendo effect reminiscent of Mahler 9 as that great work slips away from this world and into the world beyond.

Antoine Tamestit plays Schnittke's Viola Concerto
© Daniel Dittus

Now pity the poor conductor who has aroused this particular critic’s expectations to fever pitch on the basis of a quite remarkable recent recording of the Pathétique. How on earth could he possibly turn in another one-in-a-million interpretation, this time of the E minor Fifth Symphony? Currentzis clearly wanted a big string sound (fielding 18 firsts and 10 double basses), and he was obviously aiming at a darkness and depth to the sound, emphasising the role of the lower strings in the Andante section of the first movement as well as at the outset of the slow movement. But the SWR Symphony, whose principal conductor Currentzis became at the start of the current season, is not yet a match for the tried-and-tested partnership in Perm. The earthiness, the depth of colouring and the orchestral groans that seem to represent the soul of Mother Russia, have not yet been successfully transferred from Siberia to Baden-Württemberg. Nor was the playing entirely secure, with a surprising clarinet mishap in the slow movement and glitches among the trumpets in the finale.

There were moments of delicacy in the phrasing of the third movement waltz and occasional flashes of electricity in the brass-laden climaxes as well as in the closing pages of the coda taken to its limits. Currentzis also picked out all the writing for the horns (not just the usual solo) in the slow movement, emphasising the woebegone spirit of a composer whose burden weighs heavy on his shoulders, and placing it in the same territory as the contemporaneous Hamlet. In this symphony (as elsewhere too) Tchaikovsky writes very effectively for his woodwind players, not that you would have noticed in this somewhat string-heavy performance. Nor did Currentzis devote much attention to the trumpet counterpoint in the finale or indeed to the role of the timpani, which should be more than just a rumble in the background. Above all, by repeatedly pulling the tempo back and employing exaggerated hairpin dynamics he didn’t make me believe that this interpretation had come red-hot straight from the forge.