SCHNITTKE Psalms of Repentance PÄRT Magnificat. Nucn Dimittis
Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance constitute one of the most technically challenging works in the entire choral literature (having conducted them myself, I have total confidence in this assertion). Notes and chords must be plucked out of the air in the strangest of harmonic surroundings; there are lines of tremendous angularity, densely chromatic chords and ever-changing time signatures. The latter is because they are entirely dictated by the texts, which are not in fact psalms but spiritual meditations on repentance from the 16th century: for this reason, a better version of the work’s title (Stikhi pokayannye) would be ‘Penitential Verses’, the designation that will be used in the new version to be published by the Schnittke Edition in St Petersburg.
This is not the first recording – there are four to my knowledge, the most exceptional of which is that by the Swedish Radio Choir under Tõnu Kaljuste (ECM, 5/99) – but it may just be the best. The Estonians have always rejoiced in a warm, rich sound and perfect blend, and guided by the utterly precise and dynamic Kaspars Putninš they give here a truly outstanding rendition that picks up every emotional and spiritual nuance with no sacrifice of technical perfection. Moments such as the blaze of major-key light in verse 4 or the pacing of the astounding climax at the end of verse 5, followed by the chromatic buzzing of the upper voices that opens verse 6, send shivers down one’s spine.
This work has been waiting for choirs able to do this, because the technical challenges are not the most important thing about this music. They are there in the service of the text, and while it is hard-won, there is consolation to be found in this penitential reflection on life and death, illustrated most profoundly by the final movement, which is textless, and one of the most profoundly beautiful things Schnittke ever wrote.
Pairing this monumental work with Pärt’s Magnificat and Nunc dimittis is an inspired idea, moving as they do from darkness to light. The recording is superb, clear and never too resonant, and the booklet notes by Gavin Dixon are excellent.