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
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9463 DDD
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.

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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.

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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