Schnittke on Hyperion

0 of 5 stars

Concerto for Mixed Chorus
Voices of Nature

Holst Singers conducted by Stephen Layton

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: March 2002

I well remember the first time I heard a piece of Schnittke’s, as a student at the Huddersfield Festival, the Concerto Grosso No.1. I was intrigued, surprised, found it funny and disturbing in equal measure and couldn’t wait to hear more. As time went on I became more and more disappointed – convinced that all his pieces were the same package tied up with different coloured string. The unrelenting bleakness of the late works, that made Shostakovich’s final opuses seem like a barrel of laughs, although a reflection of the composer’s precarious health and frustration, I found too predictable.

Having said all that I can put my hand on my heart and say that the Choir Concerto is not just one of Schnittke’s finest works but one of the most significant choral works of the last century. It is a masterpiece and a worthy successor to the great liturgical settings of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov.

In terms of scale (over forty minutes) and demands on the choir, the Concerto lives up to its title. The first movement is by far the longest and a most impressive display of control and constructional mastery that I miss in so much of this composer’s other music. The climaxes are perfectly placed and as blistering in their power as the quieter moments are mystical – particularly at the words “O Lord show me in my doubts and paths of purity”. The Concerto has a sort of symphonic outline – the second movement being slow and the third a scherzo; the finale is more of a brief epilogue than a proper last movement.

There is little to say about this performance except that it is totally extraordinary. The Holst Singers are, at least on paper, an amateur choir but I would like to hear the professional choir that could come up with a performance of such linguistic and musical virtuosity (the Russian enunciation is as natural as can be). The range of colour, articulation, attention to phrasing and dynamics isabout as good as it could be – consultation with the score leaves one in no doubt as to the accuracy either. In short, if this recording isn’t up for an award there is no justice.

The other works, though slighter, are well worth investigating. The short Voices of Nature is an atmospheric vocalise for female voices and vibraphone (Rachel Gledhill), originally part of one of Schnittke’s many film scores and here adapted by the composer for concert performance. It simple structure makes a considerable impression – from its almost inaudible beginning on one note, slowly expanding in dynamic and density until fading to nothing.

Minnesang for 52 voices begins in almost the same way with a series of mysterious over-lapping white-note canons. This is more familiar Schnittke territory – the montage of texts and multiple divisions creating a vast collage of sound. The high tenor lines are clearly a bit of a strain but are bravely attempted. Minnesang rather outstays its welcome given the textures are rather unchanging. Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna comes to mind – Ligeti, however, knows when to stop! The final pianissimo in an unexpected minor key is rather magical though.

The Choir Concerto is a must for all those interested in what a choir can do. Anyone hoping for a more inspired and brilliant performance will have a long wait.

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