Pärt • Schnittke
Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance; Pärt: Magnificat, Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspars Putnins
BIS BIS-2292 (hybrid CD/SACD) 59:51 mins
Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance for unaccompanied mixed choir, first performed in 1988, was the last of his major choral works. It commemorates the 1000-year anniversary of Russia’s Christianisation, setting texts drawn from a collection of poems originally written in the 16th century whose central focus is the murder of Grand Prince Vladimir’s two youngest sons by their older brother in a long drawn out and bloody battle for succession to the throne. As a result of this brutal episode, depicted with graphic intensity in the sixth movement of Schnittke’s cycle, these two brothers were subsequently canonised as martyrs and saints.
In many ways, it’s a very bitter and somewhat disturbing work, trying to make sense of past wrongs involving human sinfulness, while at the same time demonstrating a willingness to repent, as well as ultimately hoping for forgiveness. As is typical of Schnittke, the variety of styles encountered in its 12 movements is huge, ranging from simple chant and strongly consonant sounds to densely polyphonic and dissonant harmonies. Yet such is its power and conviction that I found myself immediately drawn into the composer’s musical argument. The performance by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Kaspars Putniņš is really impressive with a particularly rich and sonorous bass sound that is absolutely tailor-made for this music. The warmly resonant acoustic of St Nicholas Church in Tallinn provides a spellbinding aural backcloth to both this and the more contemplative Arvo Pärt settings, and BIS’s engineers have performed miracles in ensuring that the words are entirely audible even in the most texturally complex passages.