Alfred Schnittke, “Fünf Aphorismen für Klavier” (1990)

Five brief pieces, easy to play and count.

Each begins with a truncated melodic dirge-like opening, a little like the mood Bartók marked mesto. Aphorism 2 is the exception; it opens with a scherzo-like staccato motif—distant cousin of Reger’s demonic dances—and then turns to the dirge-like melody in measure 7.  These slow, sad, half-melodies, muffled by dissonances and denied any resolution, are like the ruined memories of any number of modernist lento and adagio movements, from Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and others. 

Each of the Aphorismen then proceeds to lose control, bursting into a loud, fast passage that usually involves rapidly accelerating note values and pitches, culminating in note clusters, repeated notes, or a single high fortissimo.

I don’t find these pieces entirely convincing, because the uncertainty of the lento and grave passages is not effectively balanced by the brief outbursts. In Aphorism 1, which is the most developed, the mood is marked inquieto, but it is less anxious or than wandering, less fraught than loose and undirected. Aphorism 4 gives up tempo and rhythm nearly entirely, but also gives up momentum and affective pressure.  The second piece has two outbursts (measures 23 and 43) but they aren’t very forceful. The Aphorism 5 nearly gives up on the outburst altogether. 

The outbursts aren’t wild enough, and the despair is deep but so quiet that it can sometimes barely be felt. Beautiful melodies in nos. 1, 3, and 5, and the occasional felicitous rhythmic explosion, make the pieces worthwhile.

It is not difficult to imagine the wild dramas of juxtaposed styles, and the ineffectual battles of consonance and dissonance, that mark his earlier work: but it is not easy to read these pieces backward to the more radical earlier work and understand how he could have become so stylistically calm.