Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-98)
Psalms of Repentance (1988) [45:08]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Magnificat (1989) [7:14]
Nunc Dimittis (2001) [6:33]
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Kaspar Putniņš
rec. 2017, Niguliste kirik, Tallinn, Estonia
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
BIS BIS-2292 SACD [59:51]
Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance was premièred in 1988 to commemorate the baptism of Grand Prince Vladimir a thousand years earlier in 988. Schnittke followed the Byzantine tradition of unaccompanied choral singing, using the melodic patterns of Orthodox chant. All of the texts plus their English translation are printed in the booklet.
Recorded in the huge acoustic of Tallinn’s Niguliste Church, this is a very atmospheric sounding recording of a very fine vocal ensemble. Conductor Kaspar Putniņš has allowed his singers quite free rein when it comes to vibrato, and with Estonia’s grand vocal tradition there are some distinctive personalities audible amongst the chorus. This can create some marvellous contrasts as the choral sound blends gorgeously in quieter moments, advancing and creating a striking impression of directness at climaxes. Extremes of vocal range in the upper registers are handled with aplomb, each moment reaching far out into the resonance of the church.
There are a few alternatives to this recording of Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance. The Harmonia Mundi label has the RIAS Chamber Chorus conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann (review), and Hänssler Classic has the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart directed by Marcus Greed (review). There is also the ECM label with the Swedish Radio Choir directed by Tõnu Kaljuste. This latter version is the one that has stuck around the longest in my memory, the conductor’s deep and subtle connection to both text and music producing a performance that is expressively sustained, has a genuine atmosphere of mystery, and the most intense of dramatic arcs. Take Psalm III: That is why I love in poverty for instance. Putniņš is brisker with his tempo here, cutting nearly a minute from Kaljuste’s timing, whipping up the anxiety levels early on and having his top lines projecting powerfully. This is a legitimate approach of course, but doesn’t serve the clarity of the text as well as from the Swedish singers. Putniņš’ tempi are swifter in general, the performance more heated as a result. With the exception of solos, Marcus Creed also tends towards a reduction in vibrato in his choral sound, sometimes creating an equally enigmatic and mysterious effect but with fewer extremes of contrast. Listening to the intense cluster harmonies that arise in Psalm IX: I have reflected on my life as a monk, you can hear details in Putniņš’ performance where clarity is ensured at crucial moments, while the drama at others is fully exploited. Which you prefer will depend on your taste, but for myself it’s good to have an alternative with real and positive differences. Indeed, maybe this raised level of devotional passion was what Schnittke intended after all. Kaspars Putniņš gets a greater sense of religious ecstasy from the score and you may decide this is not so much your cup of tea, but be sure to listen right to the end before making up your mind – that final humming chorus is genuine high art.
Arvo Pärt’s music is less edgy than Schnittke’s, but the additional works here go well with the Psalms of Repentance, Putniņš adapting the choral sound to this ‘cooler’ idiom. These are of course works that these Estonian singers have performed many times, and the smooth ease with which the high notes of the Magnificat are communicated give the work a warm appeal here that is a little more consolatory and atmospherically expressive than Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices on Harmonia Mundi (review). Paul Hillier also recorded the Nunc Dimittis with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir on Harmonia Mundi Cat. 907401, the more recent recording just edging it as a preference through the gorgeous effect of soprano Kaia Urb’s solo voice contributions, and the sheer immersive effect of impeccable intonation and sonority.