Alfred Schnittke: Psalms of Repentance (ECM New Series 1583)

Alfred Schnittke
Psalms of Repentance

Swedish Radio Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded at Högalidskyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden by P2 Swedish Broadcasting Corporation in February 1996
Engineer: Ian Cederholm
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a coastal town in Japan, documented by video and performance artist Yamashiro Chikako, where a neglected gate runs off the land and into the sea (not unlike the cover for First Avenue). As the camera tracks its crooked slats and sagging wire, we watch it being swallowed by the waters, marking a border that no longer has any physical meaning. Alfred Schnittke’s Psalms of Repentance are very much like that indefinable territory: the border is there, and at one time provided utilitarian purpose, but has now transcended itself into the realm of the abstract, where it survives only in memory. Because repentance also requires a conception of time and the emotional projections that bind us to its passage, charting one’s hardships in the printed score becomes an exercise in faith, whereby divinity is converted into audible form.

These settings of fifteenth-century poetry were composed to mark the millennial anniversary of Russia’s Christianization. While not known for a cappella choral music, Schnittke unravels himself in these pieces like no other. Each numbered section is its own flower in a plot that only expands with each listen, pollinating the life (and death) of its totality. The heartfelt tenor solo in II, for example, strips us to our core with its solemn insistence, marking the earth like farmland: regular scars gouged into the skin of the earth, from which arise the flora of regret. Dark swaths of orthodox atmosphere and glorious resolutions make IV one of the album’s profoundest sections, and give us the clearest picture of their composer’s distresses and affirmations alike. Women’s voices often gather in dissonant streams of commentary, such as can be heard in VI, while VIII floats from transparency to opacity. There is a quality to these shifts and to this music that can only be described in simile. Like a bolt of light from between the clouds, it is but a blink of cosmic eyes that stills the heart because one cannot think of anything else upon witnessing it. The final Psalm is a singular implosion to behold, its subdued insights melting into a sinful world, a river running through the gorges of a landscape chiseled in the likeness of history.

The instrumentally minded arrangements are sensitive to their texts, while also drawing out inner relationships with such weight that one remains immobile. The album’s recording level is low, thereby necessitating a quiet space for listening, and heightening its more declamatory moments. Conductor Tõnu Kaljuste lends his leading hands to the Swedish Radio Choir, whose earthen sound drips with energy. This is contemplative music at its finest from a composer who continues to enchant, now and forever.

<< Egberto Gismonti Trio: ZigZag (ECM 1582)
>> Pierre Favre: Window Steps (ECM 1584)

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