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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934 - 1998)
Requiem for soloists, mixed chorus and instrumental ensemble (1974/75) [38:45]
Three Sacred Hymns for mixed choir (1984) [5:34]
Monika Korybalska (soprano); Agnieszka Kuk (soprano); Katarzyna Oleś-Blacha (soprano); Olga Maroszek (alto); Dominik Sutowicz (tenor)
Choir of the Music Department of Rzeszów University
Instrumental Ensemble of the Artur Malawski Philharmonic in Rzeszów/Bożena Stasiowska-Chrobak
rec. 2017, Warsaw, Poland. DDD
DUX 1407

There are four recordings in the current catalogue of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s Requiem, which was written in the mid 1970s and takes up the bulk (over four fifths) of this rather short CD from the Polish label Dux. Plus half a dozen of his Three Sacred Hymns for the same forces without instrumentalists from ten years later. One of the chief appeals of this CD lies in the fact that this emotive music - written in a thoroughly Slav spirit – has been conceived and performed with full Slav sentiment and precision.

There is a perseverance in these performers’ approach… Schnittke had a particularly troubled life. The texts are presented to us with direction; they are projected full of meaning – rather than merely as syllables to be set. Listen to the rounded and sprung articulation of the ‘Tuba Mirum’ [tr.4], for instance. The brass and higher stops of the organ and piano are bursting with menace and – if we are chosen – by promise. Dissonances underline the paradox that good and suffering can co-exist. These musicians are putting their all into both words and music, and, significantly, into making the two work in a very convincing conjunction.

None of these soloists, the choir or instrumental ensemble here is a household name. Yet they admirably suit what can be seen as naďveté on Schnittke’s part as he draws on chant, opera, the intimacy of chamber music (in the ‘Recordare’ [tr.6], for example… “the time has come for me to tell you something that seems to set the relationship between the divine and the human upside down”).

The approach of these gifted musicians is one of earnestness bolstered by spontaneity. Here there is no interpretative script to be adhered to. No treading familiar territory. The music is all immediate. It’s tense and vibrant at birth – rather than springing to life for no known reason. For sure, this means that at certain moments (the end of the ‘Lacrimosa’ [tr.7], for example, when the choir doesn’t quite hold the final notes) we are reminded that this is something of a musical occasion, not an anodyne and over-rehearsed, clinical, declamation of the familiar.

Such energy, one feels, is in keeping with Schnittke’s compositional approach: however, coloured, multi-faceted, innovative yet somehow already in our blood (his polystylism) the music sounds, we are to take it almost at face value, with freshness… that disingenuousness again. It seems essential to perform and listen to Schnittke’s music while fully aware of the pressures on him as one condemned as Formalist. Such a term really meant anything of which Stalin and his successors disapproved; and so placed those accused thereof (they included Prokofiev and Shostakovich) beyond redemption in the Soviet system. At the same time, it’s essential to give Schnittke’s ventures into atonality and aleatoric music full rein. And not to assume that they were reactions to criticism, or ways of avoiding it, or in any way gratuitous.

This honesty of effort comes across extremely well in these performances: one hears bleakness, despair – but as qualities attracting, and worthy of, charity. Schnittke avoids forcing – or even projecting – what is very real (to him) onto us as listeners. When the final phrases of the ‘Agnus Dei’ [tr.12] are intoned, one knows that there is hope. Schnittke actually follows this with the ‘Credo’ and a second ‘Requiem’ movement. But he will not find hope for us. These singers and sensitive instrumentalists re-inforce extremely well the balance which is implied by writing evocative music. And then either leaving it up to us to surmise the composer’s emotions, or allowing that whatever moved him, we are to accept and find our own analogues. This is the very antithesis of the Verdi Requiem… and much closer to the spirit in which Mozart wrote his.

Phrasing, restraint, a certain gentleness which tempers the total involvement of singers and players in the music, lack of inhibition yet lack of empty gesture; all these contribute to the result – which is superb. Delicacy, precision and transparency help to achieve this very satisfying performance. As does a thorough understanding of Schnittke’s idiom. The Three Sacred Hymns have no instrumentalists yet are equally rich and satisfying. Their very brevity is a virtue, for this is focused and intense music sung with corresponding intensity. They evoke massed Russian choirs and the folk world of Eastern Europe. As with the Requiem, the singing is technically accomplished and can hardly fail to satisfy listeners.

The acoustic (the CD has no details) has just the right amount of reverberance; yet never needs to ‘help’ the performers. The booklet sets the music in context and has details of performers, soloists and others. This is an exemplary recording achieving a difficult balance in the music. Attentive listeners who wish to get to the essence of this highly individual composer need to delve beneath the surface of Schnittke’s sound world. Repeated listenings make this possible with ever deeper satisfaction.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Dominy Clements



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