Schnittke: Penitential Psalms; Voices of Nature

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COMPOSERS: Schnittke
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Penitential Psalms; Voices of Nature
PERFORMER: Danish National Radio Choir/Stefan Parkman; Gert Sørensen (vibraphone)
There’s something penitential about the entire Russian story of pain and remorse in endless repetition. Standing in place of an organ part to the Orthodox service that he chose not to write, Schnittke’s twelve Penitential Psalms, composed in the year of hope and uncertainty, 1988, have a fair share of anguish etched into their musical complexion. For psalms read ‘songs’; these are not the traditional penitential texts of the prayer book, but eleven poems of penitence (the last piece is wordless) by 16th-century monks. Their stories are personal, like Schnittke’s. However, with its references to Mussorgsky and Mahler, as well as the composer’s own Fourth Symphony, this collection connects life with liturgy and the national soul.


Anyone who responds to the Slavic choralism of Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov will be impressed by the result. Penitence implies relief as well as gloom, and the second and fourth psalms blossom into radiant tonal writing that suggests the protean nature of Schnittke’s muse. Elsewhere, close chromatic canons between male and female voices reflect both bitterness and contrition in this finely controlled performance. From an earlier period, Voices of Nature for female voices and vibraphone pays homage to Ligeti, though with a harmonic sleight-of-hand distinctly the composer’s own. Nicholas Williams