If the idea of an unaccompanied choral work, sung in Russian, lasting more than 40 minutes sounds like hard work, don't be too quick to dismiss it. Schnittke's Choir Concerto (1984-85) has the unmistakable whiff of greatness about it and is unquestionably one of his most compelling achievements. It finds him in ecstatic mode, setting eloquent prayers by a 10th-century Armenian poet. The result is mellifluous, compelling and quite overwhelming. Technically and musically it's a real challenge to any choir, let alone an amateur one such as the Holst Singers. All credit, then, to conductor Stephen Layton for turning fine individual singers into a group of the first rank. Two other works bulk out the disc: Voices of Nature
is a short, wordless piece for ten female voices with the ghostly addition of a vibraphone. It's the earliest composition here (1972) and the very embodiment of the simplicity that Schnittke had newly embraced. Minnesang
is a clear precursor of the Choir Concerto, both technically and musically, with the 52 voices honed with intense precision to powerful effect. But it's for the Concerto that this disc is indispensable. Rather like the Górecki Three
phenomenon a few years back, this has the potential to become a cult work, and this performance more than does it justice. --Harriet Smith
Unquestionably one of the choral masterpieces of the 20th century, Alfred Schnittke's Concerto for Mixed Chorus is an extended setting (about 40 minutes' duration) of words from 'The Book of Lamentations' by the Armenian monk Grigor Narekatsi (951-1003). Written in 1984/5, it is scored for a very large choir and for this recording Holst Singers were augmented by large contingents of London's finest singers. Like Wagner (in Tannhäuser) and Richard Strauss (in Guntram), Schnittke was attracted to the poetry and music of the minnesingers, the German medieval tradition of courtly lyrics and secular monophony. At first he planned to write an instrumental piece (intended for his third violin concerto) based on songs by the minnesingers, but he later rejected this idea and decided to keep these vocal melodies for vocal music. The result is Minnesang (1980/81) for 52 voices (18 sopranos, 12 altos, 10 tenors and 12 basses). The third work on the disc is the haunting and evocative Voices of Nature, from 1972. This is a vocalise that is, without words for ten female voices and vibraphone. Its first public performance took place in spring 1975. Superb performances directed by the recipient of the recent Gramophone Award for the Best Choral Record of the Year (Britten's Sacred and Profane, CDA67140), Stephen Layton.