Alfred Schnittke’s early life, with a Jewish father, Volga German mother and a musical education in occupied Vienna, was haunted by the fears and tensions of the outsider. The ‘polystylist’ language he eventually developed, with its wild juxtapositions of the ‘banal’ and ‘refined’ and a jabbing irony that confounded Soviet apparatchiks, may thus have been a fortified wall shielding a serious avant-gardist, but he risked coming across as a composer in search of a voice.
As time passed by and regimes began to crumble, he allowed cracks to appear in that wall and offer glimpses of the vulnerable artist within. Declining health in the 1980s revealed spiritualist tendencies, most apparent in the Penitential Psalms for mixed choir a cappella, written in 1988 to commemorate the millennium of the Christianisation of Russia.
Setting poems for Lent by anonymous monks from an anthology of Old Russian texts, the principal themes are that of original sin, the wrongs of the past and the need to repent and forgive; significant sentiments as the Soviet Union was breaking apart and old scores were being settled. The work has elements of traditional Russian Orthodox Liturgical chant with syllabic declamation and hummed drones, but tight contrapuntal lines and rich cluster harmonies dominate.
Schnittke’s austere late style is apparent in the grim opening, Adam Sat Weeping at the Gates of Paradise, but don’t be put off as Psalm 2 lets the light flood in with gleaming sopranos and superbly executed tenor solo. The self-flagellating remorse of Psalm 3 is depicted with a vocal line that winds around itself like a braided cord, gradually unravelling before tightening again.
The fire and brimstone of Psalms 4, 5 and 6 is depicted in harmonies veering between ugly dissonance and saccharine sweetness (am I granting Schnittke leniency by suggesting a sly irony?) Psalm 9 opens with another chant-like tenor solo before triumphant harmonies of affirmation. I was particularly struck by the closing pages of Psalm 11 with its strange Bartókian harmony folding in on itself.
The work concludes with a dramatic coup, the text abandoned for haunting hummed harmonies. The performance, as expected from this ensemble, is superlative. Thanks to special coaching, pronunciation sounds idiomatic (at least, to my non-Russian ears) and there is no lack of Slavic intensity while the impeccable intonation clarifies the dense interweaving harmonies where the traditional Slavic wobble would create an unholy racket. Vivid sound and quality packaging.