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

A superb and revealing performance of one of Schnittke’s most approachable works

The rather anodyne name Concerto for Mixed Chorus, intended to convey a conscious link to similarly named works by Bortnyansky and other composers, actually conceals a work with tremendous depths of faith and feeling, and a masterpiece of choral writing building firmly on the Russian sacred tradition. The text comes from deeply penitential religious poetry by Grigor Narekatsi, a 10th-century Armenian monk, to which Schnittke responded with an immediacy that makes this a colourful and considerably more approachable work than the later Penitential Psalms.

The Holst Singers bring to the music’s often stunningly rich textures not only their previous experience with Russian music, but also something of the English choral tradition, which makes those not infrequent moments that suggest the choral writing of, say, Howells or Bax, strike one the more forcefully. In this they make a different case for the work from the Danish and Russian choirs recorded on Chandos; the music can stand many different approaches, and this is not only as convincing as any other I have heard, but allows details of the scoring to come through in a unique way. The technical skill of the Holst Singers is truly impressive; the demands made on them by Schnittke's long-breathed lines are far from small, and there is a complete sense of security and enjoyment from the highest floating soprano to the lowest bass rumblings.

Neither Voices of Nature nor Minnesang aspire to the heights of the Concerto, but they shed interesting light on Schnittke's stylistic changes. The former is really a tiny tone poem, originally written for a film, pretty but not much more; the latter is a substantial setting of Minnesinger texts for 52 voices. It is also a mood picture, as the composer himself said, but at 19 minutes it is a long one, and the material doesn't really sustain interest for that long. It is the Concerto that provides the real interest in this programme, and with a performance of this extraordinary quality it should earn many new admirers.

Ivan Moody 

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