Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance
Pärt: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Kaspars Putniņš, cond.
BIS 2292 (SACD: 59:51)
Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance were written to commemorate
the millennium of Christianity in Russia, celebrated in 1988. The work is for
unaccompanied mixed chorus and sets 16th-century texts, anonymous poems on
religious themes (not psalms as such, the Russian ‘Stikhi’ translates better as
‘Poems’ or ‘Verses’). Most of the texts are abstract Lenten reflections on the
subject of penitence, although scenes from the Garden of Eden are evoked, and
the text of the Sixth Psalm relates the fate of Boris and Gelb, the sons of
Grand Prince Vladimir, who were murdered in 1015. The baptism of Vladimir in
988 is the event that the millennium celebrations commemorated, and Boris and
Gelb became the first martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church. The music has a
quasi-liturgical character, drawing on the spirit and style of Orthodox music,
but the harmonies are more advanced, making this a thoroughly modern setting.
This new recording from Kaspars Putniņš and the Estonian
Philharmonic Chamber Choir is outstanding, and easily the best version on the
market. But before continuing with my rave, I should declare an interest: I
wrote the liner note, though beyond receiving a first edit prior to release I
had no further involvement in the recording itself (the booklet is available
online at https://www.chandos.net/chanimages/Booklets/BI2292.pdf). Putniņš
takes an austere approach to the music, with most of the movements timing
faster than the competition (though the differences are slight), but also
shapes the music subtly around the formant and meaning of the texts. This is
ideal for projecting the quasi-liturgical atmosphere—both reverent and
passionate, but with emotional intensity at the climaxes, though even here the
restraint is always felt. The sheer precision of the choral singing also
elevates this version above the competition: The music is very hard to sing,
but never seems so here.
The recording too is excellent. It was made in St.
Nicholas’s Church in Tallinn, a relatively large Protestant church with a very
high ceiling. The acoustic is ideal, as is demonstrated by the venue’s regular
use as a concert hall. Here, it gives the choir a warmth but without detracting
from the detail of the harmonic voicing (there is little counterpoint). BIS
provides surround sound that is more interrogative than immersing, but this
complements the warmth of the choir, and the results never feel dry.
This is now the fifth commercial recording of Psalms of
Repentance. The premiere recording was made by Stefan Parkman and the Danish
National Radio Choir in 1996 (CHANDOS 9480). I haven’t heard that, but it was
well received at the time. Next came the Swedish Radio Choir under Tõnu
Kaljuste (ECM 453 513-2), until now my preferred version. Kaljuste is more
expansive than Putniņš, balancing the singing more towards expression than
devotion. But Putniņš shows that the music can be just as effective within
narrower interpretive constraints, and also has the key advantages of better
singing and better audio. Since Kaljuste, two German radio choirs have recorded
the work: the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart under Marcus Creed (Hänssler
93.281—like this, in SACD) and the RIAS Kammerchor under Hans-Christoph
Rademann (Harmonia Mundi 902225). Neither choir gets to the Slavic heart of the
music the way that the Swedes and the Estonians do, nor are either of these
choirs as well disciplined. (As an aside, Rademann writes in his notes that the
performance directions in the published score, the breaths, dynamics, and
articulations, are editorial: They were added by Viktor Suslin at the behest of
the publishers. So Rademann ignores these, interpreting the work more
intuitively. The result is a greater sense of continuity, with few sudden
dynamic changes, but the differences are very slight.)
Putniņš has an additional advantage in recording the work in
a church acoustic, where all the other versions are made in studios with
digital reverb added. The reverb on the SWR recording is particularly
detrimental, but none of the other versions I’ve heard give the natural warmth
afforded by Tallinn church.
As a filler, Putniņš includes the Magnificat and Nunc
dimittis by Arvo Pärt. This is simpler and more consonant music than
Schnittke’s, but it fits the mood of the Psalms of Repentance perfectly.
Schnittke’s final movement is a wordless bocca chiusa lament—a beautifully
atmospheric ending and a very hard act to follow. Pärt’s straightforward
textures don’t really compete, instead bringing the listener gently back down
to Earth. An excellent recording, then, and for the foreseeable future the
clear favorite for Schnittke’s masterly setting.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 41:6.