The modern composition based on the Faust legend that was banned last month in Moscow opened here today to a standing ovation.
The composition, a multistyled oratorio by Alfred Schnittke, the Soviet Union's best known modern composer, is based on a folklore version of Faust written in 1587 titled "Seit nu chtern und wachet" ("Be Sober and Keep Watch").
In a performance lasting a little over an hour, Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducted the Vienna Symphony, the Vienna Chorus, organ and four soloists in a suspenseful, stirring and provocatively incongruous depiction of Faust's loss of his life and soul to the Devil.
The original performance was supposed to have opened in Moscow's Tchaikovsky Concert Hall on Tuesday, May 24. On the Friday before, it was called off.
"No one called me personally," said Schnittke. "The authorities told Avangard Fedotov, the director of the Moscow Philharmonic, and he passed the word on to me. He said they had found the text overly mystic, and that the participation of top Soviet singer Alla Pugachova would place too much attention on this."
"Mystic," in official Soviet terminology, means religious, and one of the final choral segments of the work urges the listener to embrace God and watch out for the Devil:
To love God alone with all your heart
To pray alone to him and against the Devil
With Christ forever to be blessed.
Pugachova is the Soviet Union's top popular vocalist, a singer with a mass following who has been turning out hits in Moscow for over a decade. It was her involvement in Schnittke's work, and its eventual banning, that has turned the affair into one of Moscow's biggest music scandals of recent times.
In Vienna's Konzerthaus, Schnittke's oratorio began like a hushed dirge, continued with a roaring, thundering crescendo and fell back to the intermittent bongs of a death knoll. The archaic German text, half sung and half spoken, was undercut now and again by runaway instrumental solos that shot through the choral drone like flashes of lightning. Then, near the middle of the work, a low, sensual woman's voice entered the hall as if from the ceiling. A seductive blond in black stiletto heels and a slinky sequined nightgown prowled through from the back, microphone in hand, sending out a lusty vibrato. Taking over the narration of the piece, she parodied the sobriety of the chorus in archaic German set to rock, the shrill eddying of her highest notes bordering on laughter:
When daylight came, the students went into the hall
But Faust they did not see
Instead, they beheld the hall besmirched in his blood
His brains dashed against the wall
The devil having knocked him from one wall to the other
His eyes and teeth also lay there
In a gruesome and horrific spectacle.
The effect was spellbinding. But it was not Alla Pugachova.
"Alla is on contract in Prague this week," said Schnittke. "Carol Wyatt, who is filling the part, has a wonderful voice. She is very talented. But there's no substitute for Pugachova. She is the best."
Music sources in Austria said the scandal helped Schnittke get to Vienna. Soviet authorities, they explained, wanted Schnittke out of the capital so that western journalists wouldn't be able to blow up the scandal. The oratorio had been commissioned for the Vienna Choral Academy, and slated for the International Vienna Festival Week, which ended today.
The inspiration for the work came from Yuri Lyubimov, director of Moscow's Taganka Theater. "He's wanted an opera based on the second half of Goethe's 'Faust' for years, but we've had to postpone planning its realization." Then came Vienna's invitation.
"I had no idea that 'Faust' was to be the main theme of the festival, but I immediately thought of the 'Historia von Dr. Johann Fausten,' printed in Frankfurt in 1587." Schnittke would like to eventually make a full opera from the piece, although there is some doubt whether Soviet authorities would ever allow such an opera to be performed in public. Especially after last week's Central Committee meeting, when Soviet Politburo member Konstantin Chernenko announced that the role of the arts must be to present "positive Communist heroes."
Faust, and his pact with the Devil and subsequent death, is hardly what the ideologists in Moscow would consider a "positive Communist hero." "It is a negative passion," said the composer, "since it deals with a Christian who, if not anarchist, could be called 'evil.' The folk tale says, however, that he died as an 'evil and good Christian. ' "
Schnittke, 47, who was born into a family of "Volga Germans" in central Russia, grew up speaking German at home. He spent two years in Vienna during its postwar occupation, practicing the piano while his father worked as translator for a Soviet magazine printed in German.
After finishing at the Moscow Conservatory, he joined the Union of Composers and started serious composition work.
Experts prefer to think of his multidimensional works more as multistylistic than as a synthesis. "The different styles are like various keys on a grand keyboard," as he puts it.
But it is not the different styles that have made his present composition so hard for Soviet authorities to digest. Like his friend and colleague Yuri Lyubimov, Schnittke's treatment of classic works lends itself to interpretation by the public as commentary on contemporary Soviet life.
Unlike western audiences, Schnittke said, Russians tend to become deeply emotionally involved in a work. "The west understands it better--Moscow feels it better."