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Briefly Noted: Schnittke's Choral Music

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A. Schnittke, Penitential Psalms / 3 Sacred Hymns, RIAS Kammerchor, H.-C. Rademann

(released on March 4, 2016)
HMC 902225 | 54'28"
Alfred Schnittke is a perennial obsession at Ionarts, although we have few chances to hear his music live in Washington. Best known for his symphonies, the Russian composer was also interested in choral music, most famously in his Faust Cantata. Add to that grand statement these two other works from the 1980s, the rather traditional Three Sacred Hymns and the immense, befuddling Penitential Psalms, both composed after he found his way back to Roman Catholicism, his mother's faith. His first major sacred work was an ominous setting of the Requiem Mass from the 1970s, in some ways more traditional than what Schnittke had written up to that point. Although he was a practicing Catholic, Schnittke acknowledged that his Russian upbringing made him more sympathetic to Orthodox liturgical music, and the three sacred hymns recorded on this new disc from the RIAS Kammerchor are on traditional Orthodox texts and recall the style of earlier Russian composers.

In both of his last major choral works, the Concerto for Choir and The Penitential Psalms, Schnittke turned not to liturgical texts but to devotional poetry by medieval writers. He composed The Penitential Psalms in 1988 for the millennium of the Christian conversion of Russia, following the baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir. The piece opens and closes with wordless music for chorus, with the first movement beginning on murky chromatic lines set very low, for the basses in three-part divisi. The emphasis on chromaticism continues when Schnittke adds the words, as descending strands of mostly half-steps mount to higher and higher starting points. Schnittke incorporates many elements of Orthodox liturgical music, a flexible sense of meter, often changing every measure, that allows him to notate a chant-like free rhythm in eighth notes. This allows the sense of time to adjust to the number of syllables in the text and where the word accents fall, and it is one way to notate the non-metrical rhythm of Gregorian chant, for example. Another Orthodox liturgical element is the use of drones, beginning with the low G at the start of the piece, and in other places placing complex structures over sustained unisons of fifths in the lower voices. Schnittke often uses the device of close imitation, with the stretto-like overlap of two contrapuntal voices, as a further nod to Renaissance polyphony and the music of Bach.

Conductor Hans-Christoph Rademann, in a booklet note about the recording, explains that Moscow choral conductor Ekaterina Antonenko served as language coach for the RIAS Kammerchor, helping the singers see relationships between the text and the music. She also helped Rademann obtain the autograph score of The Penitential Psalms from Irina Feodorovna, the widow of Alfred Schnittke, which revealed that the published score contains many expression marks not intended by Schnittke but added later by Viktor Suslin, another composer who edited the music, as well as some errors in the parts. Those corrections are important given the predominance of chromatic writing, a nightmare for intonation, through which Schnittke builds up staggeringly dissonant structures that sometimes melt back into traditional triads. The beauty of the performance, from a chorus of about forty singers, both rarefied and broad in sound, added to the new version of the score makes this recording an important addition to the Schnittke discography.


Martin said...

Don't care if you publish this, but I have to tell you, this is an outstanding review, beautifully written and informative. The explanation Schnittke's compositional technique is exemplary. Always enjoy Ionarts.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you kindly!