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Voices of Nature
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)

Concerto for Choir (1984-85) [40:12]
Voices of Nature (1972) [4:05]
Arvo PÄRT (b.1935)

Dop la vittoria (Piccola Cantata) (1996/98) [9:06]
Bogoróditse Djévo (1990) [0:57]
I am the true vine (1996) [4:20]
Swedish Radio Choir/Tõnu Kaljuste
Rec.24-27 January 2000, Studio 2, Swedish Radio, Stockholm (Concerto for Choir); 14-16 March 2000, Högalidskyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden (other works)
BIS-CD-1157 [60:01]

"I, an expert in human passions,
Composed this collection of songs, where every verse
Is full to the brim with black sorrow…."

So begins the text of the second movement of Schnittke’s remarkable Concerto for Choir. The words, taken from the 10th century Russian Book of Mournful Songs is strikingly appropriate for this darkest of composers. Whether it’s black humour, as in (K)ein Sommernachtstraum, or black despair, as in the Viola Concerto, Schnittke’s music often seems to occupy realms of unrelieved Stygian gloom.

Yet the Concerto reveals facets of Schnittke’s musical personality that I hadn’t really encountered before. For example, the music speaks of a profound religious fervour, such that the composer was reluctant to have it performed outside of Russia for fear of misunderstanding. There is a clear spiritual kinship with the Vespers and Litanies of Rachmaninov, another dweller in the dark regions.

Thus this uniquely named work has moments of wondrous luminosity, particularly in its second and fourth movements. The second, which has a hypnotic slow lilt to it, even evokes the sensuality of the Poulenc Gloria (closing section), a most unlikely kinship. There are many inspiring moments and many memorable textures, and any worries the composer may have had about Western performers’ response to this music would have been quickly dispelled by Tõnu Kaljuste and the outstanding Swedish Radio Choir. Their technical assurance is so great that one can easily admire their powerful identification with the music, while Kaljuste clearly has a superb ear for texture, balancing convincingly Schnittke’s often densely complex choral writing. The wordless Voices of Nature is a short relatively simple work for ten women’s voices and vibraphone. Its coolness, however, makes a welcome foil to the intensity of the Concerto.

Then follow three works by Estonian Arvo Pärt, and many listeners may experience some surprise at the cheerful, almost humorous nature of Dopo la Vittoria. The title means After the Victory, the text telling the story of how Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the 4th century, composed the hymn Te Deum and sang it with St. Augustine when baptising him. It is a blithe work, with a wonderfully solemn ‘Amen’ just near the end, before the good-humoured music returns to round the work off.

Bogoróditse DjévoMother of God and Virgin - is just fifty-seven seconds long in this performance, and is a delightful little choral ‘lollipop’, with guitar-like strumming sounds in the voices. And I am the true vine, a setting of John 15, vv.1-14, is a gentle, sensitive piece, again short and straightforward, composed for the 900th anniversary of Norwich Cathedral in 1996. The nature of these pieces will be quite unexpected to listeners acquainted with Pärt only through such earnest, repetitive works as the Passio or the Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

The cool, unassuming nature of the Pärt pieces balances extremely effectively the weightiness of the emotions in the Schnittke Concerto, making the disc much more enjoyable and ‘digestible’ than it might otherwise have been. A fine achievement, superbly recorded by the BIS engineers under Gunnar Andersson.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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