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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Concerto for Mixed Chorus (1984/5) [40.58]
Voices of Nature (Golosa prirodi) (1972)[5.07]
Minnesang (1980/81) [18.32]

Holst singers
Stephen Layton
Rec. All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, 13-15 Jul 2001
HYPERION CDA67297[64.48]

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Those who know Schnittke as a master of the grotesque, the trashy or the avant garde would be as surprised to hear this CD as his supporters in the Soviet era were when this magnificent concerto for choir first appeared in 1981. But Russian artists, even the non-devout, have always drawn inspiration from the Orthodox tradition, and few who know Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom or Chekhov’s story The Student would deny that they have reached the highest peaks of inspiration under its spell. Schnittke, massively popular in his own country, seemed to address a deep psychological need in the Russian people, one that could not be ordinarily articulated or resolved in Soviet times. That Schnittke’s investigation of the Russian mindset should find a choral outlet in the Orthodox tradition should, with the wisdom of hindsight, be no surprise.

Schnittke took liberties that less talented composers would not have been forgiven (many of his orchestral works contain electric guitars mainly, I contend, because they were frowned upon). These include the religious text of this Concerto For Mixed Chorus, drawn from the writings of a tenth century Armenian monk Grigor Narekatsi. They are stunningly beautiful, even in translation, a voice of devotion from one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Schnittke’s modal writing is simple, extremely expressive and decisively Russian. Some have expressed reservations as to the quality of this concerto, mostly concerning its unchanging texture, but few fail to respond to its immense power, and I have no doubt in calling it a masterpiece. Part and Taverner sound like little boys beside a work that explores real spiritual depths.

The Holst Singers, a non-professional choir based in London, have done an excellent job. They do not have the authority of the Svetlanov (who gave the first performance) version on Chandos, but they sing wonderfully. They have a beautiful, cool sound in the best British tradition, and the deep bass voices bring forth some glorious noises. I suspect that the Russian language pronunciation is not perfect, but such are the dense textures of the Concerto this is not a hindrance that will concern most listeners.

The fillers do not reach such heights. Voices of Nature is one of those slight works that Schnittke produced occasionally. For vibraphone and wordless chorus, it doesn’t seem to do very much, and it doesn’t really stick in the memory, but it sounds nice.

Minnesang is a much more earthly and complex work exploring the legacy of the medieval German Minnesangers, aristocratic predecessors to the Meistersingers. It sets a medieval German text concerning love, although Schnittke treats the words completely phonetically, claiming the meaning to be unimportant. It is a skilful work, building interesting textures in crescendos, although it never feels particularly important.

This disc is hugely welcome. The sound of a composer under the yoke of communism trying to explore matters of the spirit whilst forbidden to make expressly devotional music is fascinating and, ultimately, uplifting.


Aidan Twomey


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