Thursday 21 April 2016

A stunningly vital recording of Alfred Schnittke’s Twelve Penitential Psalms and Three Sacred Hymns from the RIAS Kammerchor directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann on Harmonia Mundi

Alfred Garriyevich Schnittke (1934-1998) was born in Engels on the Volga River in Saratov Oblast, USSR. Of German descent, his father was originally from Frankfurt am Main. Schnittke’s musical career began in 1946 in Vienna, where his father worked for a newspaper.  He had private piano lessons, went to operas and concerts and wrote his first compositions. After moving to Moscow in 1948, Schnittke first studied to be a choral conductor. Later he studied composition and counterpoint with
Yevgeni Golubev and instrumentation with Nikolai Rakov at the Moscow Conservatory. At this time he was influenced by Filip Gershkovich, a pupil of Webern, who lived in Moscow but, after a period of dodecaphonic writing in the sixties, his music later attained to a polystylistic technique which made use of earlier historical styles.

Schnittke taught instrumentation at the Moscow Conservatory from 1962 until 1972.  Soon his music began to be played at important contemporary music festivals and, in the 1980s, included in the concert programmes of leading orchestras throughout the world. Festivals and concert cycles devoted to his works were held in many cities, including Moscow, Stockholm, London, Huddersfield, Vienna, Berlin, Turin, Lucerne,
Hamburg and Cologne. Schnittke was professor of composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschule from 1989 to 1994.

His compositions include opera, ballets, orchestral works including nine symphonies, concerto grossi, concertos, choral and vocal works, chamber and instrumental works and music for film, radio and theatre.

Schnittke’s Penitential Psalms were written in 1989, in honour of the millennium of Christianity in Russia. The texts are drawn from poems for Lent written by one or more anonymous monks found by the composer in a collection of Old Russian texts dating from the second half of the 16th century.

Schnittke’s Twelve Penitential Psalms coupled with the composer’s Three Sacred Hymns appear on a new release from Harmonia Mundi  featuring the RIAS Kammerchor directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann

HMC 902225
CD and free download

Sung in Russian, the RIAS Kammerchor under Hans-Christoph Rademann bring a rich deep atmospheric opening to Adam saß vor dem Paradies und weinte the first of the Zwölf Bußverse für gemischten Chor a capella (Twelve Penitential Psalms), rising through some wonderfully striking moments, drawing some fine harmonies and finding a real sense of sorrow.

A tenor brings the Es nimmt mich die Wüste auf wie die Mutter ihr Kind with a lovely hushed underlying texture from the choir, who later rise as the music becomes more passionate. The choir continues with some quite wonderful textures and harmonies, Schnittke’s lovely dissonances, through some powerful moments.

The female voices of the RIAS Kammerchor open Weshalb lebe ich in Armut and are soon joined by the male voices in this melancholy psalm, rising in passion, even desperation at times, with this choir achieving a glorious texture as they reveal some striking vocal ideas. Meine Seele, warum befindest du dich in Sünden also opens with the female voices bringing a brief respite yet rising gloriously to some moments of great intensity on the words ‘But rejoice, my soul.’

O Mensch - verdammt und armselig opens with the male voices of the choir in this faster moving Psalm to which female voices soon join. They move through some wonderful harmonies before the music falls to a hush with lovely bass textures before rising through more astonishingly fine harmonies. Als sie sahen das Schiff brings a small group of female voices in an agitated Psalm that flows slowly throughout the whole choir, Schnittke adding some disturbingly individual textures before finding a less turbulent nature, yet with no less passion.

Female voices bring a light textured flowing opening to O meine Seele, warum hast du keine Angst  before the male voices overlay some dissonant harmonies, growing in intensity at times, Schnittke shaping the music and text wonderfully with the RIAS choir sensitive to every dynamic, finding moments of great passion. There is a melancholy feel as the female voices introduce Wenn du die Zeitlosigkeit der Trauer überwinden willst. The male voices, complete with rich bass sonorities, add a real depth as the music finds a comfort in the words ‘be not sorrowful.’

Über mein Leben als das eines Geistlichen habe ich nachgedacht opens with a tenor over a quietly held choral layer from the male voices to which female voices rise over, creating some exquisite harmonies. The male and female lines are woven as the Psalm progresses through passages, at times mournful, at times passionate with some distinctive rising phrases from the female voices. The music grows in intensity revealing just how deeply Schnittke must have felt such texts as ‘Insane avarice, lack of love …’ before finding a peak and falling back.

The whole choir surge forward in Sammelt euch, ihr christlichen Menschen! through rising and falling phrases in this more uplifting and determined psalm. There are moments for the male voices alone before a very fine coda. 

With Ich bin in dieses elende Leben gekommen male voices provide a hushed wordless background over which a tenor sings ‘I entered this life of tears as a naked infant, Naked also I shall leave it.’ Slowly and exquisitely they are joined by other male voices, then female over the restrained male voice layer, weaving some terrific harmonies, the upper voices finding some glowing upper phrases before descending to a hushed coda.

In (Mit geschlossenem Mund) deep bass voices bring a wordless little tune that slowly undulates before the other voices subtly join in this most magical of sections.   The music rises to the upper reaches as light appears before finding its way through passages that reach the lowest depths, blending exquisite harmonies and textures. This is a most wonderful extended section that moves through lovely hushed passages, exquisitely controlled, to the remarkably conceived coda.

This is surely one of Schnittke’s finest compositions wonderfully sung by this choir.

In 1984 Schnittke wrote his Drei geistliche Gesänge für achtstimmigen gemischten Chor (Three Sacred Hymns) during a single night. The RIAS Kammerchor bring some lovely sonorities to Gegrüßet seist du, Jungfrau, Mutter Gottes, a glorious blend of voices in this beautifully flowing hymn that rises gently before a quiet coda. Herr Jesus, Sohn Gottes rises in intensity through some wonderfully harmonised passages before finding the lovely coda. There is a softer opening to Vater unser, a really fine setting of the Lord’s Prayer where Schnittke provides some lovely part writing together with glorious textures and harmonies before rising in intensity at the words ‘the power and the glory.’

For those that find some of Schnittke’s music difficult to assimilate this new disc will come as a surprise. Certainly there are very individual touches here but this is great choral music with many beauties.

Hans-Christoph Rademann and the RIAS Kammerchor rarely let the temperature drop in these fine performances, full of passion, sorrow and tragic beauty. This is a stunningly vital disc.

They receive an excellent recording from Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin which in the HiRes download is truly breathtaking with a terrific sense of presence.   

There are excellent booklet notes that give information on the sources of texts and the autograph score.

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