Schnittke: Symphony No. 2 (St Florian)

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COMPOSERS: Schnittke
LABELS: BIS
WORKS: Symphony No. 2 (St Florian)
PERFORMER: Mikael Bellini (countertenor), Göran Eliasson (tenor), Malena Ernman (alto), Torkel Borelius (bass)Mikaeli Chamber Choir, Royal Stockholm PO/Leif Segerstam
CATALOGUE NO: CD-667 DDD
Schnittke’s hour-long Second Symphony (1979-80) is subtitled ‘St Florian’, and was inspired by a visit to Bruckner’s church. This six-movement work – using plainsong sources audibly and extensively, and with contributions from voices both solo and choral – is at once symphony and mass. A substantial work, it nevertheless seems to me only intermittently moving: the somewhat Ives-like polyphonies of the first section of the fourth movement, ‘Crucifixus’, for example, have a real cumulative power. Odd that it has taken BIS so long to add the symphony to its Complete Schnittke Edition; no other version is currently available.

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Astonishingly, the two compositions on the second disc are but a small part of Schnittke’s recent output in the three years between his second and third strokes, including two new operas and two further symphonies. While the 14-minute, three-movement Sixth Concerto Grosso (1993) cannot be counted among his stronger works, the 39-minute Eighth Symphony (1994) is another matter. Mahler and Shostakovich provide the background to the first of the Eighth’s five movements. The impression of a new austerity, going well beyond their influence, is confirmed by the second movement, in particular, peculiarly desolate even by Schnittke’s standards.

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Yet it’s the 18-minute central Lento that surely holds the key. Bruckner plays a part again, as well as much else, including Russian chant. But the vision – oblivious of conventional contrast, yet without a trace of self-indulgence – is gut-wrenchingly idiosyncratic, bleak and spare. Keith Potter