Interview with Vadim Gluzman: Beethoven with Schnittke Cadenzas-- An Extraordinary Cultural Statement

May 11, 2021, 2:42 PM · Last December's 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven's birth has inspired a number of new recordings of his Violin Concerto, but certainly Vadim Gluzman is the only violinist to record it with cadenzas by the radical 20th century German-Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke. And Gluzman's recording, with conductor James Gaffigan and the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, also pairs the genial Beethoven with Schnittke's knotty and dissonant Concerto No. 3.

Why not choose something a little more traditional?

"The Schnittke cadenzas are an extraordinary cultural statement," Gluzman told me in a phone interview in late April. "I know that to play them is daring, in a way, and it is maybe even considered out-of-style. But who sets the boundaries? How do we decide what is 'right' and what is 'wrong' for something like a Beethoven cadenza?"

Vadim Gluzman
Violinist Vadim Gluzman. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Schnittke's cadenzas, written in 1977, go well beyond the usual parameters of embellishing a cadence with a bit of personal improvisation, using themes from the movement while staying within the style of the piece. By contrast, Schnittke's cadenzas cross the centuries, using themes not just from the Beethoven Violin Concerto, but also from violin concertos by Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, Dmitri Shostakovich, Alban Berg and Schnittke himself. In doing so, they also cross into territory that is dissonant and even atonal at times.

For example, in the third movement, the violin sounds like it is exiting Schnittke's cadenza through a swarm of bees, to get back to Beethoven.

"A 'swarm of bees' is a good way to describe it," Gluzman said. During that part of the cadenza, Schnittke brings in 10 violinists from the orchestra. "It's completely aleatoric. Each and every one plays trilled glissandi, raising the pitch by quarter notes - it's all very approximate. And I, as the soloist, do the same thing. So it becomes a wave of sound, and these waves of intensity sort of 'swallow' the soloist."

This is no mistake -- "Schnittke often talked about society against the individual," Gluzman said. Schnittke's Concerto No. 3 - the other piece on Gluzman's recording, begins with a similar effect - an extended trill passage. "In Schnittke's fourth violin concerto there is a whole theatrical effect going on, he calls it a 'cadenza visuale,' a visual cadenza." That is another instance of the ensemble drowning out the individual. "The soloist has to actually act. You start playing the cadenza, and the orchestra swallows you sound-wise. How do you react, when your voice is no longer heard? When you are neglected, when you are ignored? So in the Third Concerto there are hints of it, but in the Fourth Concerto it really reaches an extreme."

In the Beethoven cadenza, after that "drowning out," the violin ultimately emerges by itself, in the familiar trill that leads back into the third movement. "The second you hear the violin alone, playing a consonant trill and not a dissonant trill, it creates such an incredible relief," Gluzman said. "Schnittke does something very similar in the first movement, bringing the violin out at the end of the cadenza. In that movement he modulates harmonically into D major - but in such a painful and tense way!"

So what does Schnittke mean by all this? It's certainly intentional.

"The way I see it, he creates this kind of time-bridge, from Beethoven to his own day - the 1970s," Gluzman said. "The first-movement cadenza is constant quotation: he starts with Beethoven's third symphony, he goes into Brahms Concerto, he goes into Shostakovich First Concerto, into Bartok Second, on to Alban Berg, and he goes into Alban Berg quite obsessively, quoting from different places in the (Berg violin) concerto."

"By connecting all these great pieces to Beethoven, Schnittke is showing: Here, this is the root of everything. In one way or another, Beethoven is a predecessor to all of them," Gluzman said. "And that truly is the case. The Beethoven Violin Concerto was the first grand violin concerto, in terms of grandeur and scope and size. I don't want to take away from Mozart, Haydn and Bach, but what we today understand as a big concerto for violin, this certainly was the first."

Gluzman Beethoven Schnittke

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While Schnittke was not a violinist himself, two of the composer's most devoted champions were violinists: Gidon Kremer and Mark Lubotsky. The cadenzas for the Beethoven concerto were written at Lubotsky's request, then later also performed by Kremer -- for a 1980 recording and also during a 1983 tour of America with Sir Charles Mackerras and the English Chamber Orchestra. At the time, the New York Times gave it a definite thumbs-up, with critic Bernard Holland writing, "the question has been whether Beethoven's Classical language can live easily alongside a more contemporary dialect - which is what Mr. Schnittke's cadenzas unashamedly speak. Judging from last night's performance, the answer is a clear, simple yes. Mr. Schnittke's cadenzas may venture far beyond Beethoven's harmonic vocabulary, but they are at the same time very true to his thematic material."

But for these musicians, coming from what was then the Soviet Union, the stakes had always been a lot higher than critical acceptance in America. Kremer and Lubotsky "were actually very daring. At that time, what they did was quite dangerous," Gluzman said. Schnittke lived much of his life in the Soviet Union, where his work fell under scrutiny of Soviet authorities, with his First Symphony effectively banned by the Composers' Union. At a certain point he was also banned from traveling outside of the USSR. Both Kremer and Lubotsky were born in the USSR and studied with David Oistrakh at the Moscow Conservatory. Kremer was born in Riga, Latvia, leaving in 1980 to live in Germany. Lubotsky was born in then-Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), emigrating to Holland in 1976.

Lubotsky and Kremer "were with Schnittke, fighting for him, premiering his works back in the Soviet Union when it was prohibited - insisting, lying, devising all sort of tricks to trick the authorities into agreeing to let his music be played," Gluzman said. "They did it with such flare, almost sometimes in a comical way. But it was very dangerous."

Gluzman also was born in the former Soviet Union, where he studied with Roman Šne in Latvia and Zakhar Bron in Russia before moving to Israel in 1990. It was during these early days that he first came to know the Beethoven Violin Concerto.

"Of course I heard recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, growing up in a house that was full of music," Gluzman said. "Both parents are musicians, so we had a huge collection of recordings. Once I started playing the violin, my father introduced the Beethoven Concerto to me."

It was Šne, his first teacher, who put the music in front of him, and it was actually just a sneaky way of making him play scales. "Knowing not only my dislike, but also my physical inability to play scales - he excused me from playing scales when I was 11 or so," Gluzman said, laughing. "Instead, he introduced excerpts from all sort of different pieces into my routine -- and that included pages from the Beethoven concerto." The concerto contains a lot of scales, "but these scales are musical. He never made me play them as a way to mechanically move fingers; it was always with some kind of musical substance."

Despite that very early introduction, Gluzman shied away from performing the Beethoven concerto in public until much later.

"I would toy with the concerto from time to time, in my teens," he said. He learned the concerto, but didn't feel ready to perform it. "This was a the very beginning of my career -- I felt I did not deserve it yet. I would keep coming back to it, for myself. At a certain point I realized, I must turn 30 before I play it in public."

"What was amazing was that -- I was never asked!" Gluzman said. "I started touring when I was 21 or 22, and all these orchestras were inviting me for the first time. All sorts of repertoire was requested, but not once was the Beethoven Concerto even mentioned as a possibility. Looking back, it's quite strange. Then, the year that I was turning 30, the first invitation came for the Beethoven Violin Concerto - as if the stars were aligned!"

At first, Gluzman played the Beethoven with the traditional Kreisler cadenza - "a genius masterpiece. The moment when he combines the two themes - it's stunning. But rather quickly I felt that's simply too long."

"So I started looking for cadenzas, and I went through quite a few," Gluzman said. "Back then there weren't any publications - now we have books of cadenzas for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I had to go to libraries and do it the old way. I stumbled upon a cadenza by Milstein, which I loved and I still love. It is quite a bit smaller in size and it is so crisp and so elegant - absolutely gorgeous. Very respectful. I adored it. It was published, so I immediately learned it, but then I heard in his recording, in the third movement he also played his own cadenza - which was not published for some reason. So I just sat down and wrote it from the recording."

He also heard the Schnittke cadenza - probably at the listening library at Juilliard, where he was studied with Dorothy DeLay and Masao Kawasaki.

"The more I lived with the Beethoven concerto, the more I felt very attracted to these cadenzas (by Schnittke)," Gluzman said. "Finally I realized that it's very simple to have them. I ordered them from Sikorski, the publisher, and started working. I did some tweaking with both cadenzas - I followed what Gidon was doing."

When he made his debut with the Boston Symphony in Tanglewood, playing the the Beethoven Violin Concerto, he had to make a decision. He was already playing the Schnittke cadenzas, but he decided to stick with the Milstein. "I thought, well, maybe this is not the place to be playing the Schnittke cadenzas. I was nervous, playing with this great orchestra and one of the greatest musicians ever." That musician was the conductor, Christoph Dohnanyi, and Gluzman was soon kicking himself for the decision. "I went to the first rehearsal, and we were talking beforehand. For some reason I mentioned the Schnittke to Dohnanyi, and he got very excited and said, 'Why didn't you decide to play it here? I love it, I love Schnittke!' He went on and on, and I felt really stupid, of course!"

"Ever since, I've been playing the Schnittke cadenzas," he said. As for the violin concertos - Schnittke wrote four of them, and this new recording contains the third. "Schnittke is very challenging, all his music is challenging," Gluzman said. "It is challenging physically but it is also very challenging emotionally - it drains you completely. It doesn't matter which style or period, he went through many in his life, from dodecaphonic all the way to polystylism, which imitation of different styles. It is always extremely intense. Every time I play Schnittke I come off stage completely empty - in a good way."

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Gluzman Beethoven Schnittke

CD givaway: You can win one of five signed copies of Gluzman's new recording of the Beethoven/Schnittke -- click here to enter to win! (To enter, you must be a registered member of and signed up for our bi-weekly e-mail journal. (Click here to register as a member, click here to to sign up for the e-mail journal.)


May 13, 2021 at 06:14 PM · I have written this before, but the 1st movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, in the entire orchestra part, has only ONE rhythm - a 5 beat motif. It is EVERYWHERE in the orchestra part. That includes each phrase of the major themes, sub-divided motifs, even the measures of silence.

The entire orchestra part is like a giant, complex jigsaw puzzle in sound, made out of only ONE piece - the 5 beat motif. It's no accident that Beethoven started this concerto with 5 drum taps.

There is a constant feeling of coming to rest on the 5th beat - like a human breath, exhaling. I may be wrong, but I think Beethoven was paralleling the human breath, with that feeling of exhaling and relaxing on each 5th beat. That, I believe, is why this piece is so often interpreted in terms of its serenity.

The violin part, on the other hand, sounds like an improvisation- sometimes joining the orchestra and sometimes going off on its own.

The Kreisler cadenza uses that 5-beat element constantly, but I just don't hear it as much in the Schnittke cadenza. So, to be honest, the other aspects of this cadenza don't do much for me.

Maybe I'll get used to it if I listen to it more often. Otherwise, I love Mr. Gluzman's performance.

May 17, 2021 at 02:23 AM · Sander your insight gives me a new way to listen to the Beethoven concerto and is an interesting critique of the Schnittke cadenza, which I've not yet heard. It only adds to my anticipation of hearing it...I'll be curious if his break from the 5-beat motif is fundamental to the overall strangeness I expect to hear in the Schnittke cadenza.

May 17, 2021 at 01:10 PM · Will:

Thank you for your comments. Yes, and in addition, beat #5 of one motif usually is simultaneously beat #1 of the next motif. They overlap. So you never quite hear or "feel" that first movement the same way twice. It is beyond brilliant in its simplicity.

And, of course, Beethoven was a brilliant improviser, and the violin part (to me) sounds like he's improvising as he goes along, so it gives what could be a dry and boring "exercise" a feeling of being spontaneously created as it goes along.

If that doesn't make that first movement one of the greatest violin pieces ever written, I don't know what is.

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