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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Twelve Penitential Psalms (1988) [48:19]
Three Sacred Hymns (1983) [6:30]
RIAS Chamber Chorus/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. February 2015, Jesus-Christus-Kirche Dahlem, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902225 [54:49]

Schnittke’s Penitential Psalms (in a Freudian keyboard-slip I just wrote “Penitentiary Psalms") are tough, rewarding music. This recording is only my second exposure to these works and the first meaningful impression of them, despite being a fairly committed Schnittke-listener. They come twenty years after the premier recordings were made on Chandos (with the Danish National Radio Choir) and some 17 years after the second recording – on ECM (with the Swedish Radio Choir, there called “Psalms of Repentance”) came out. From 2011 there is a recording on Hänssler (SWR Vocalensemble - review). This is the other version I have, though I confess having given it only cursory listening until now – my considerable loss, as it turns out.

Now the RIAS Chamber Chorus has taken to the Penitential Psalms. There are complaints on Amazon reviews that the Danish singers on Chandos aren’t quite nailing what’s in the score. Whether that’s a fair assessment or not I don’t know, but even without a score we know the notes are written exactly as it sounds here, because the RIAS Chamber Choir under Hans-Christoph Rademann (arguably the world’s best such ensemble) can be trusted to reproduce the music accurately, if nothing else.

Beyond that considerable technical challenge, fortunately, they also invest the music with fervor so that it never sounds cerebral or dry or academic but instead written with an urgency, with passion, even warmth. No mean feat for something that might be described as ‘50 minutes of a capella dissonance’. But it’s a dissonance with holes broken through, like Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi building or a piece of intricate crochet work. When conventional harmonic beauty shines through, as it does in the Ninth Psalm (“I have reflected on my life as a monk” – the texts are taken from a 16th century collection of anonymous texts from a monastery), it’s a beauty that we may know from Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil or orthodox chant-like solemnity and calm (but no Orlando di Lasso), which the work radiates. There’s plenty old Russian church music to be smelled, but none of the polystylistic mayhem and none of the melting chords or rambunctious neo-somethingisms that make Schnittke so exacerbating to some and so much fun to others.

On the surface Schnittke’s Penitential Psalms are difficult music for (Western) ears to grasp, but already on first listening it made its way through the barriers and thorns to the heart. When this barren, austere music was over – softly, tenderly, a bocca chiusa (with a closed mouth) – it made me quietly sad. Thankfully – and fitting the very mood the music created – the three beautiful and uplifting Three Sacred Hymns for eight voices follow on the Harmonia Mundi disc as a conclusion. A more catholic (think perfume and incense) sound-world than the orthodox browns and muted earnestness of the Psalms, this is in some ways a harmonious tonic and an uplifting conclusion to this recording, given in a relaxed and slowly blossoming reading.

Following the excellent liner notes, including Rademann’s comments on the recording (Schnittke’s widow acted as language- and expression coach), I gather that the Russian speaker will get still more out of this text- and word-conscious music, but to a lesser degree so will the person following the quadrilingual – Russian-German-French-English – libretto.

I wonder if this recording would be something that Robert Reilly and I could recommend in a third edition of “Surprised By Beauty” (A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music), where Schnittke doesn’t have a chapter as of the second edition which has just jumped off the presses at Ignatius Press. No, on one hand, because the dissonance and the challenges of these Psalms are a significant hurdle for anyone who called it quits at late Schumann and needs convincing and subtle coaxing to give Janáček’s String Quartets a try, or Geirr Tveitt. But then anyone with an earnest desire to invest in the process of listening, and receptive to an honest, earnest sense of faith and humanity which this music so clearly expresses, might ‘get it’ and benefit from such a recommendation. I don’t know the answer but I know I am moved by this music in this performance and others will be, too, whoever they turn out to be.

Listening to this music a) loud or b) on good headphones is much recommended (you’re lucky if you have electrostatic headphones at hand); their intimate beauty, especially on second and third listening, benefits from it greatly. There’s very little to choose between the Hänssler and the Harmonia Mundi release. I find the latter to have a slightly more Russian tone and atmosphere to them, a more direct recording, more exacting and unafraid of strident tones and if you listen really, really closely, sparrows are audible from outside the church in which it was recorded. The Stuttgarters under Marcus Creed have a somewhat warmer and more beautiful sound to them. Creed & Co, which come with the slightly more substantial addition of Voices of Nature instead Three Sacred Hymns, have the potential advantage of SACD surround sound; in stereo (SACD vs. CD) the difference in sound quality is negligible.

Jens F. Laurson
Ionarts blog



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