Listen: Alfred Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue (1965)

Thoroughly Good Listens are first time-listens. They’re the thoughts that emerge when I hear a work for the first time. Active engagement with works of art. Special treats.

I don’t think I’ll ever lose touch with my latest new discovery. Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue isn’t something I’d necessarily have sought out, still less imagined I’d ever enjoy. But because I very nearly didn’t hear it (and because of what followed after it), this particular new listen is so noteworthy as to make it an unlikely signature tune.

I’d originally thought that pianist Yulia Ryabova’s Goldsmith’s recital in nearby Deptford Town Hall was at 7.30pm not 7.00pm. I’d got the venue right. That much I’d read correctly in this month’s edition of Lewisham Life magazine. But when I arrived at 7.10pm I discovered I was in fact late by ten minutes.

When I did make it into the auditorium (the sound of applause signalling what I thought meant the interval), I discovered that Yulia was about to play something else. I sat down quickly in one of the few remaining seats I could find. At which point she started playing the Improvisation and Fugue.

Schnittke is a composer who loves sounds, it seems to me. He appreciates the meditative opportunities that arise from the percussive and tonal qualities the piano can create. He’s a master storyteller. Listening to this is not unlike watching an unfamiliar play by Shakespeare. There is a grand implied narrative to the whole creation which makes the work surprisingly accessible. I hear rain. I also marvel in his obvious passion for melodic complexity.

When the applause starts up again and the pianist stands to take a bow, I applaud and casually look around the room to see how enthusiastically everyone else is clapping. (I tend to do that at concerts.)

That’s when I’m completely taken by surprise by the sight of someone I went to school sat on the back row. We’ve not seen each other for 35 years. Someone I used to share car journeys to and from school when I was a kid in Suffolk.

During the short interval we catch-up as much as we possibly can given the time available. I privately marvel at how he hasn’t aged, envy his scarf, and wonder whether I’ll be able to pull off pumps as convincingly as he can when I’m the age he is. I doubt it.


Alfred Schnittke’s Improvisation and Fugue is available via Idagio or Spotify.

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