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Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Concerto for Choir (1984-85) [39:55]
Three Sacred Hymns (1984) [6:21]
Arvo PÄRT (b 1935)
Seven Magnificat-Antiphons (1888/1991) [13:12]
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Kaspars Putniņš
rec. January 2020, Niguliste kirik (St Nicholas Church), Tallinn, Estonia. DSD
Sung texts and English translations included
BIS BIS-2521 SACD [60:22]

I have to confess that I’ve never really come to terms with the music of Alfred Schnittke. For some unfathomable reason – and I know the fault is mine – it has never exerted much appeal for me. However, his Concerto for Choir is the exception which happily proves the rule and I was keen to hear this new recording by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.

Schnittke wrote the Concerto at the request of conductor Valery Polyansky. Initially, he had composed a single, stand-alone piece; subsequently, Polyansky asked him to write a four-movement work, into which Schnittke incorporated that initial piece, as the third movement of his expanded score. Schnittke had adopted the Orthodox faith in the 1970s and in this work, he looks back not only to the tradition of Orthodox religious music but also, within that tradition, to the specific form of the choir concerto. For his texts the composer turned to the religious writings of the Armenian monk, poet and theologian, Gregory of Narek (951-1003) and specifically to his Book of Lamentations, which he set in a modern Russian translation.

The first movement is ‘O Master of all living’. I think that the first couple of phrases, sonorously sung in this performance, will hook you, as they hooked me. From the outset one is conscious that Schnittke is very respectful of Orthodox tradition but he adds the spice of his own contemporary Romantic harmony. The music is slow and deeply felt. The singing is simply fabulous. The choir’s discipline and intonation are flawless. There are 31 singers in the choir (8/7/8/8) and their blending is absolutely beautiful. Schnittke demands a very wide dynamic range from the choir and the members of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) control the dynamics superbly. Their loud singing is full-throated and thrilling – though in Isobel Baillie’s famous phrase, it’s ‘never louder than lovely’ - while the soft dynamics are no less impressive. Throughout the movement – and, indeed throughout the work as a whole – the music responds excellently to the text. So, for example, Schnittke’s music in the fourth stanza (‘Your forbidding hand and all seeing eye…’) is fervent and dramatic – and is delivered in that fashion by this choir – but the last four lines of the poem call forth music of humble supplication

The second movement, ‘This collection of songs,…’, is dramatic. Here, the harmonies are more exploratory and adventurous by comparison with the preceding movement. The choral textures are very full – according to the notes, at the climax the choir is divided into 17 parts. The music must be extraordinarily challenging for the choir but the EPCC not only surmount the technical challenges but they also manage the not inconsiderable feat of investing the words with meaning at the same time. The singing is both compelling and utterly assured. The third movement (‘To all who grasp the meaning’), which was the fons et origo of the complete work, takes the music in a different direction. As Gavin Dixon points out in his admirable notes, Schnittke’s music is “cycling through repeated figures to create a trance-like effect”. I wouldn’t disagree though, for me, the repeated little phrases also impart rhythmic energy. When he reaches the fourth stanza (‘O God, if You save all those…’) Schnittke moves into a more expansively lyrical vein, but the rhythmic repetitions reassert themselves in the next stanza. Thereafter, the textures become considerably more complex; this is now virtuoso writing, making great demands on the singers. The music is urgent and varied, to such an extent that there were times when I found it difficult to keep up with the text I was following. The end of the movement is tumultuous.

The fourth and final movement, ‘Complete this work which I began in hope’, is by some distance, the shortest. As Gavin Dixon puts it, the music sets “archaic-sounding chants to carefully gauged narrow dissonances”. The music is slow, prayerful and reflective and, in essence, the Concerto has come full circle, back to the start of the first mvement. At the end Schnittke has the word ‘Amin’ sung again and again by different sections of the choir before everything fades into a peaceful conclusion. Thus, he achieves a real sense of completion.

I am in awe of the achievement of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in their performance of this magnificent and moving work. Clearly their chief conductor (since 2014), Kaspars Putniņš has prepared them scrupulously for this assignment, but he’s done much more than that. He draws from his singers a thrilling performance of deep conviction. By any yardstick, this is an amazing demonstration of choral singing.

The Three Sacred Hymns are contemporaneous with the Concerto – though they were not published until after Schnittke’s death – and these too were composed for Valery Polyansky. They are much more modest in scale. ‘Bogoroditse Devo’ (Hail Mary) is slow and reverent; as such it offers a fascinating contrast with Arvo Pärt’s joyful, gossamer-light response to the same text. It’s scored for double choir and it is effectively a canon between the two ensembles, each of which sings in a different key. ‘Gospodi Isuse Khriste’ (Lord Jesus Christ) starts softly and grows into a powerful but short plea for mercy. The final Hymn is a setting of The Lord’s Prayer. It’s a bit longer than the other two pieces and the more extended text give Schnittke the scope for the most adventurous setting of the three. The result is very fine. After their magnificent account of the Concerto, it’s no surprise to find the EPCC turns in super performances of these three miniatures.

It was a good idea to partner the Schnittke pieces with Arvo Pärt’s marvellous settings (in German) of the seven Magnificat antiphons known as the Great ‘O’ antiphons. These are used liturgically at the service of Vespers or Evensong in the week before Christmas. Pärt’s settings can be sung liturgically as standalone items but they are so devised that they work very well indeed as a set for concert use. I love them all. Pärt uses simpler textures than Schnittke deploys in his Concerto. In part, I think that’s a question of their respective compositional styles. However, the spare nature of Pärt’s writing is entirely suitable to the culmination of the season of Advent when Christians are waiting in darkness for the coming Light. There’s no hiding pace in this exposed writing, not that the ECC has any need to seek refuge. Their singing is superb throughout.

This is an outstanding disc. The music is both eloquent and compelling and the EPCC gives memorable performances. The quality of their singing is matched by the excellence of the BIS recording. Engineer Jens Braun has produced demonstration-quality sound. Not only has he captured the sound of the choir truthfully and excitingly but he’s also conveyed the acoustic of the Niguliste kirik, Tallinn in an ideal fashion. The resonance around the choir is very satisfying and imparts a natural aura to their sound which is very pleasing. I especially noticed in the Pärt pieces that at the ends of phrases the echo was beautifully captured. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and was seriously impressed. The booklet gives the sung texts for the Schnittke words in transliterated form, which is ideal. To complete the attraction of this package, Gavin Dixon’s notes offer an excellent introduction to the music.

John Quinn

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