Symphony No. 9/Nunc dimittis
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Elena Vassilieva mezzo-soprano
The Hilliard Ensemble
Recorded January 2008, Lukaskirche, Dresden
Engineers: Markus Heiland and Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
“It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away…. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) is another in a long line of composers who have fallen to the so-called “curse of the ninth.” And while in Schnittke’s case the curse doesn’t quite hold water (it is, technically, his Tenth when one takes his Symphony No. 0 into account), the circumstances of its completion are prime material for the lore that surrounds such configurations of creative output. Regardless of how much we believe in the numerical significance of Schnittke’s Ninth, it was the last work he ever committed to paper. That he mustered the ability to do so after suffering four strokes, which had left his right side paralyzed, makes the work’s existence all the more enigmatic. Said debilitation forced Schnittke to write with his non-dominant hand, making for a virtually unreadable score. Famed Schnittke conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky subsequently prepared, under apparently spurious authority, a “performing edition,” which Schnittke vehemently rejected upon hearing a tape of its performance. Following his death soon thereafter, the score was entrusted by widow Irina to one Nikolai Korndorf, a fellow composer who sadly died of a brain tumor before he was able to do anything with it. Irina then passed the work along to Alexander Raskatov, who felt so moved in his attempts to provide a more definitive manuscript that he added an elegiac fourth movement of sorts to Schnittke’s already monumental three in the form of the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, let thy servant now depart into thy promis’d rest”) that rounds out this landmark recording.
The visceral Andante that opens the Ninth—which, in Raskatov’s estimation, acts as a “voice from beyond”—is like a string of blocks sagging over time. Harmonies move from consonance and dissonance in fluid sweeps, their ambiguity neither inviting nor repelling us. If anything, they signal a maturity that accepts those experiences that embolden us through their difficulty as well as those that refashion us through their proverbial beauty. Schnittke preserves his special sensitivity for the orchestra, treating it at times as a solo instrument, as if each section were its own string, and at others as if those voices were so distinct that they existed only through the vast spaces that separate them. It is this constant balancing act that makes the Schnittke experience so alive with nuance, easily adapting to our changing temperaments. In such a world of sound there is no self yet stable enough to hold on to for a lifetime. There is only the constant negotiation of our own musicality and the indeterminacy that binds it. And so, when the timpani announces itself at last, it sounds less like a declamatory statement and more like the heartbeat of a feeble and weary body. The addition of a harpsichord in the Moderato as a sort of tangential continuo of times past is a perfect example of Schnittke’s asymptotic grace. It also gives the symphony a concerto-like pathos, ever offset by a cryptic aftertaste and recumbent winds. As a whole, the Ninth is dominated by scales, which take a most blatant turn at the tail end of the Moderato, during which a trumpet runs through a chromatic line (perhaps in acknowledgment of its pedagogical roots?) as a lead-in to the final Presto, where we hear this modal motif echoed in the strings, and again in the lone oboe that welcomes the harpsichord’s unassuming return. Such fundamental utterances are, I think, keys into the piece’s inner energies, and prepare us for the gentle letting down of its cessation.
Raskatov’s intriguing companion piece, written in memoriam, is scored for mezzo-soprano, men’s voices and orchestra. It opens with verses by Joseph Brodsky, a favorite poet of Schnittke’s, and imparts its remaining attentions to a text by hesychast Staretz Silouan (who ECM listeners will recognize as a name of interest on Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum). Raskatov delves deeper into Schnittke’s symphonic territory, trail-marking it with voices along the way. Brief outbursts from harpsichord and marimba, along with some Ligeti-inspired vocal articulations, lend a ceremonial cast to the glowing mood. Dense brass swellings recall Górecki’s Old Polish Music, while a watery gong and shadowy electric guitar work their way into an ending that is but a mirror image of its own intentions.
A professor once told me: “Only a fool would think the answer is the most important part of the question.” Such a statement suits the music at hand, if only because the death(s) it circumscribes are as inexpressible as my unworthy attempts to relate it to the silent reader. In this regard, the present recording may be a give and take for the Schnittke admirer. On the one hand, it lacks the conviction of, say, his often-hailed Eighth. On the other, listeners will delight in the familiar presence of his beloved harpsichord and mellifluous scoring. By far one of the most stunning ECM New Series entries, this album is a more than fitting testament to a glorious composer and an opportune introduction for another who, though not so well known, walks humbly in his shadow.