Schnittke: Choir Concerto, Three Sacred Hymns, Voices of Nature
Pärt: Dopo la vittoria
Bavarian Radio Chorus (Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks), Peter Dijkstra, cond.
BR Klassik 900505
The continuing popularity of Schnittke’s music is fuelled as much by the enthusiasm of performers as by that of audiences. That’s especially true of the Choir Concerto, although the motivations of the choirs who have approached it have not always worked in the Concerto’s favour. The music is based on 19th-century Russian Orthodox traditions, so the aesthetic is largely tonal, or at least modal, but the demands on the singers are extreme. Extended passages in loud dynamics and encompassing the far ends of the tessitura are the rule rather than the exception, and many professional choirs have seen the piece as the ideal vehicle to showcase their virtuosity. Unfortunately, the result has been many performances that have been given just to show that the performers can sing the work at all, not that they can sing it well.
When it comes to recordings the situation is very different. There are only a handful on the market, but all are good, and this new one from the Bavarian Radio Choir sits well alongside the competition. The benchmark remains Valery Polyansky, whose two recordings, from 1988 and 1991, perfectly capture the liturgical atmosphere of this music but without sacrificing any detail. He also has the advantage of Russian singers, with all the benefits that suggests in terms of pronunciation and focussed, weighty bass. Polynasky’s two recordings are very similar, the first, with the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, was released on the state-owned Gramzapis label, while the second, with the Russian State Symphonic Cappella, is on Chandos. It would take a keener ear than mine to hear the differences between the two, and as the venue and production team are exactly the same, it raises the suspicion that these are in fact the same choir and the same recording. But whatever Chandos was up to here, the company has certainly done the work proud, later releasing a second recording, with the Danish National Radio Choir under Stefan Parkman. It has the same liner note, but is a markedly different reading, more expansive and less focussed. It too is excellent, but Polyansky retains the edge. Since then there has been a British contender, from the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton on Hyperion. That’s a good recording too, but like the Danes the Holst Singers emphasise atmosphere at the expense of detail. In both cases, the choir is relatively small and has really to push to get the volume required for the louder passages.
This new recording from Peter Dijkstra is probably the best one since Polyansky. He has an impressively large choir at his disposal, and an impressively professional one too. His reading is considerably faster than all the others on the market. On all the previous recordings, the first movement comes in at over 17 minutes, but Dijkstra delivers it in 14:48. Yet it never sounds rushed, and the singers retain a sense of poise throughout. This is, I think, the first commercial recording to be made in a studio rather than a church, which may explain the shorter running time. The sound is reverberant enough for the music’s liturgical character, but Dijkstra never has to wait at the end of phrases for the sound to die away before continuing.
My only major complaint is the lack of agogic definition. Schnittke’s setting of the text skilfully propels the music through the use of hard downbeat consonants, and in the second movement in particular, those regular and rhythmic entries give the music pulse and pace, however much reverberation is involved. Here the accents are often lost in the sonority of the textures, a result perhaps of his large choir, although not an automatic one. Also, the far ends of the tessitura are not served here as well as they are by Polyansky’s choir(s). Enough basses are deployed to ensure the sound is bottom-heavy when required, but the singers don’t have the focus of tone that a smaller Russian basso profundo group could offer. And the sopranos occasionally struggle with the loud high passages. That’s true of all the commercial recordings, but again, Polyansky gives us the best high notes.
Compared to the substance and dramatic weight of the Concerto, the remaining works seem insubstantial indeed, but they’re worth hearing nonetheless. The Three Sacred Hymns were all written in a single night, and show a fluency of melodic and harmonic writing that comes with masterful composition at that speed. The Hymns are the closest Schnittke ever got to actual Orthodox liturgical music and fit within most of the stylistic prescriptions, the only exception being that he uses mixed choir. The Bavarian voices are less taxed here technically, although they are still at a disadvantage to their Russian colleagues in terms of style. But actually they do a very good job of sounding like a Russian church choir and the music is given a very fine performance. Voices of Nature is a work for 10 female voices singing vocalise and a very subtly deployed vibraphone. Stylistically, it sits somewhere between Orthodox liturgy and the more consonant sonorism of late Penderecki. Like the Three Hymns it is fairly inconsequential music, and poses few problems for the singers here.
Several other minor works by Schnittke could have been chosen to round out the programme, but instead we are offered Arvo Pärt’s short unaccompanied cantata Dopo la vittoria. The comparison between this and Schnittke’s Choir Concerto would put Pärt in a poor light, but the comparison that the programme instead suggests is with the Sacred Hymns and with Voices of Nature. The similarities are strong, and attest to the fact that the composers where close friends for many years. We don’t tend to think of Schnittke as a religious minimalist these days, but the comparison with Pärt here shows that he did at least dabble.
Recording quality here is very good (why no SACD?) and the choir throughout sounds immediate and clear, but without that detail detracting from the overall warmth of sound. Chances are that Schnittke’s Choir Concerto will continue to appear on commercial recordings in the years to come, but it is unlikely that any subsequent releases will be significantly better than this one.