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Schnittke: Symphony No. 4, Requiem

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4.0 out of 5 stars An early polystylistic piece paired with Schnittke's most mystical symphony 17 Dec. 2014
By Christopher Culver - Published on
Format: Audio CD
This BIS disc contains two of Alfred Schnittke's works for choir and orchestra. The Stockholm Sinfonietta and Uppsala Akademiska Kammarkor perform, conducted by Stefan Parkman in the first piece and Okko Kamu in the second.

Schnittke's "Requiem" (1974-75) is one of the early works of his polystylism era, when he liberally embraced the hallmarks of the baroque, classical and early Romantic eras, letting a whole mix sound together through a work. Here traditional Requiem stylings reminiscent of Mozart and Dvorak are supplemented by allusions to Russian Orthodox chant. This traditionalism, however, is slowly stretched into directions earlier composers would have never gone towards. The "Tuba Mirum", delivered by male voices as the female singers maintain a chant of "tu-ba mi-rum, tu-ba mi-rum", is rooted in common practice tonality, but utterly modern in its effect. The climax of the piece comes with the "Credo", not a movement generally found in a requiem, but which is proudly belted out as a rock drum kit joins the traditional orchestral sounds. The ending of the piece unusually reprises "requiem aeternam" instead of the customary "lux aeterna". While I feel that Schnittke was still to further refine his "polystylistic" approach in the years following, this is still a fine piece.

In the 1980s Schnittke would write several more sacred works, but this time they show great devotion and contemplation, and eschew the zaniness that marked his other music at the time. The Symphony No. 4 for tenor, countertenor, piano, chamber chorus & chamber orchestra (1984) is one of these. Written at a time when the Jewish-born composer had embraced Roman Catholicism, it is a mystical work with four strands, three being the distinct musical developments of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches, and the fourth a semitone-based line meant to suggest the synagogue tradition. Each of these strands is linked to a different keyboard instrument, which maintain a continuo at certain points through the work. The two vocalists appear only once each, first the tenor and later the countertenor, singing wordlessly. This symphony proceeds at a stately place, setting out the four strands without hurry. While the listener may need to be in the right contemplative state of mind to follow Schnittke's drama, it is rewarded with the climax of this symphony, the choir singing a sublime "Ave Maria".

This recording is very different from the major competition, Polansky and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra and its choir on a Chandos disc. While Kamu proceeds in a consistently somber fashion, Polyansky makes a few sudden turns towards high tension, which has the effect of making this sound more like Schnittke's neurotic secular works than his sacred ones. The BIS has a spacious sound, as if hearing this spectacle from a distance without a great cathedral, while the Chandos recording closely miked. Finally, these Swedes sing the choral part in Latin whereas the Russians sing in Russian. The Chandos recording is not bad, however, and although I prefer the BIS one myself, Schnittke fans might want to give both interpretations a try and settle on the one they like best.

Neither of these are among my favourite Schnittke works, though I enjoy putting them on occasionally. However, the performances and sound are fine, and while some of BIS's Schnittke recordings are dodgy, this is not one of them.
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