Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Twelve Penitential Psalms (1988) [50:06]
Voices of Nature (1972) [4:38]
SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Greed
rec. 5-8 April 2011, SWR Funkstudio Stuttgart.

The first performance of Alfred Schnittke’s Twelve Penitential Psalms in December 1988 celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of Russia’s Christianisation, and the work as a whole takes Russian orthodox hymns as its musical starting point. There is a fairly gritty feel to many aspects of this music as it revolves around the tricky themes of original sin, but fans of someone like Arvo Pärt will find a similar experience is to be had with a work which always maintains a connection with ancient tradition, and always has at least one foot in a recognisable and often strikingly consonant tonality. As Annette Eckerle’s booklet notes point out; Schnittke, ‘trusts the metrical structuring power of the words’ to guide the entire work’s flow and melodic shaping.
This is a release which, SACD option aside, comes directly into competition with a Chandos disc, CHAN 9480, with the Danish National Radio Choir and Stefan Parkman. Both of these are technically excellent and musically highly powerful. The Stuttgart singers are given a more atmospheric and resonant acoustic, which enhances the ‘doloroso’ feel to the descending lines in the opening Adam Weeping at the gates of Paradise and elsewhere. Both of these recordings sound convincingly Russian enough to my ears, but the Stuttgart ensemble sounds more traditionally ‘choral’ and is a little less challengingly direct in overall impression, which may again have to do with the acoustic perspective. Remarkable numbers such as My soul, why are you in a state of sin? with its clashing close harmonies and clusters which resolve so stunningly, are more overwhelmingly impressive with this SWR recording, in part due to all-embracing the 5.1 surround sound, but more particularly because the unity of colour in the vocal ensemble is greater with the Stuttgart singers. The female voices with the Danish NRC tend to become more prominent as the intensity increases, and overall coherence is reduced as a result.
Warmth of expression and passionately projected performance can be heard throughout this recording, and something like Oh my soul, why are you not afraid? has it all, from the weaving lines of the opening to the dissonant extremes of a dramatic climax, all such moments serving to create maximum contrast with the sometimes chillingly cool cadences and consonances which follow. Layers of dynamic texture are a feature of the piece, with underlying hummed pedal-point base notes creating harmonic foundations, and generating other-worldly halos of sound such as that created in I have reflected on my life as a monk.
Schnittke’s Twelve Penitential Psalms is one of the choral masterpieces of the last century, and this is a recording which conveys its full, angst-ridden glory. There is one other recording which equals it in terms of sheer expressive weight, and that is from the ECM label with the Swedish Radio Choir directed by Tõnu Kaljuste. For sheer control and vocal magic, this recording does have the measure of the Stuttgart Vokalensemble, with cooler and less overtly ‘heart-on-sleeve’ vibrato laden solos and an unbeatable atmosphere. The ECM misses out on the Voices of Nature for ten female voices and vibraphone with which this SWR disc closes. This is a work which was to prove an early indicator of Schnittke’s later moves towards ‘strictly structured simplicity’. Lines follow each other to build curtains and clusters of vocal sound, the piece opening and closing on a unison note of D, the final being one octave above the opening, the changing rise perhaps standing for the subtle and ultimately benign evolution and change brought about through nature’s irresistible but footprint.
This is a superbly produced and performed disc which will enhance any choral collection, and even if you have one of its competitors the magnificent spatial effect of the surround-sound is quite a consideration and, certainly in this case, not to be underestimated. All of the texts are printed in German, English and Russian Cyrillic in the booklet. The Psalms are not light and easy fare, but neither is the vocal writing so horrifically avant-garde that innocent listeners should have many fears. As a toss-up between the ECM version and this Hänssler disc I would argue for Kaljuste’s Swedish voices for clarity, sheer beauty of sound, moving depth of expressive colour and accuracy of intonation, and for Marcus Creed’s for its scary directness of communication, its more intense emotions and greater sense of the terrors behind the texts.
Dominy Clements

Scarily communicative – a gloriously performed choral masterpiece.