Schnittke: Choir Concerto & Minnesang (CD Review -, 2002)

If the idea of an unaccompanied choral work, sung in Russian, lasting more than 40 minutes sounds like hard work, don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Schnittke’s Choir Concerto (1984-85) has the unmistakable whiff of greatness about it and is unquestionably one of his most compelling achievements. It finds him in ecstatic mode, setting eloquent prayers by a 10th-century Armenian poet. The result is mellifluous, compelling and quite overwhelming. Technically and musically it’s a real challenge to any choir, let alone an amateur one such as the Holst Singers. All credit, then, to conductor Stephen Layton for turning fine individual singers into a group of the first rank. Two other works bulk out the disc: Voices of Nature is a short, wordless piece for ten female voices with the ghostly addition of a vibraphone. It’s the earliest composition here (1972) and the very embodiment of the simplicity that Schnittke had newly embraced. Minnesang is a clear precursor of the Choir Concerto, both technically and musically, with the 52 voices honed with intense precision to powerful effect. But it's for the Concerto that this disc is indispensable. Rather like the Górecki Three phenomenon a few years back, this has the potential to become a cult work, and this performance more than does it justice.

Harriet Smith

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