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

The death of Alfred Schnittke in 1998 robbed the world of one of its most distinctive symphonists. But as this fine disc of his lesser-known choral works makes clear, it also deprived Russia of a composer deeply aware of his country's vocal traditions, and a writer able to reflect that tradition through a uniquely personal prism.

By far the most powerful expression of that ability is the mighty Choir Concerto. Written in the mid 1980s it is the summation of Schnittke's style of 'new simplicity'. At 40 minutes, the Concerto is a challenging work for any chorus, but what so impresses both in the music and the performance here is its deceptive, organic simplicity. There's a wonderfully controlled ebb and flow to the phrasing and dynamics that belies the work's complexities. Although based on regular harmony and the melodic shape of Russian orthodox music, Schnittke's trademark writing is subtly sewn throughout the vast canvas.

After the weight of the Choir Concerto, Voices of Nature - for wordless female voices and vibraphone - comes as a perfect counterfoil. If the Concerto reflects man's striving after God, then this eerie miniature is more like the angels reaching down to the natural world. It has an ethereal, astronomic beauty in which the forces mingle so beautifully it's almost impossible at times to distinguish where the voices end and the vibraphone begins. Five minutes of pure musical wizardry.
The fecundity of Schnittke's invention is embodied in the Minnesang, based on medieval German poetry and scored for 52 voices. Rather than opt for a straightforward setting of the texts, Schnittke piles up layer upon layer of words and vocal lines. The intricacies are manifold but the cumulative effect is astonishingly lucid.

This is a disc that reaffirms Schnittke as one of the most significant composers of the last century and the Holst Singers as a leading chorus on the international stage.

Paul Cutts

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