Schnittke: Symphony No. 4; Three Sacred Hymns

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COMPOSERS: Schnittke
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Symphony No. 4; Three Sacred Hymns
PERFORMER: Iaroslav Zdorov (c-tenor), Dmitri Pianov (ten), Igor Khudolei (piano), Evgeniya Khlynova (celesta), Elena Adamovich (harpsichord); Russian State Symphonic Cappella, Russian State SO/Valéry Polyansky
Keeping track of Chandos’s series of Schnittke releases is almost as demanding as keeping track of the composer’s output itself, which continues to represent a triumph of artistic will over increasing physical infirmity. If much of that recent music seems schematic and skeletally scored, the Fourth Symphony is a far more substantial work, full of dense, shifting chromaticisms and vivid orchestral and vocal colours erected around a highly wrought architectural framework. The starting point is a synthesis of Jewish and Christian symbolism, and the ground-plan of the work is derived from the imagery of the Roman Catholic rosary prayer – its division into three ‘chaplets’ and their subdivision into five sections, each of which describes one of the mysteries of Christ.


Yet that is only an underpinning, a subtext, to an ever unfolding musical argument – 22 variations stretching across three-quarters of an hour, bound together by a collection of melodic cells and chords. The progression seems natural and compelling, the integration of the solo voices and the four-part choir beautifully judged. It is a work that always seems, like so much of Schnittke’s later music, to have a fearful eye on the Apocalypse, and the horrifying climax that overwhelms the symphony on two occasions brings it even closer to the edge, despite the conciliatory, blamelessly diatonic ending.


The coupling with the Three Sacred Hymns is nicely judged. These a cappella settings of three prayers from the Orthodox Liturgy have the clarity of utterance and simple directness that the symphony avoids; they are Schnittke at his most instinctive, most naturally devotional. Andrew Clements