For those who read this site regularly, Hans-Christoph Rademann’s name should be a familiar one. Articles have appeared to track the progress of his project with the Stuttgart-based Carus label to record the complete works of Heinrich Schütz, whose twelfth volume was released at the beginning of this year. He is also Chief Conductor of the Berlin-based RIAS Kammerchor, the professional chamber choir associated with RIAS, the radio station initiated by the United States for German-language broadcasting following the Second World War. (“AS” stands for the American Sector of Berlin, where the station was based.)
The RIAS Kammerchor has a worldwide reputation for the quality of their choral singing. That reputation has been enhanced by recordings of a highly diverse repertoire. In 2014 the group celebrated the 300th anniversary of the birth of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach with a harmonia mundi recording in which they joined forces with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. However, their interest in modernism is just as strong, as can been established by listening to Astralis, their 2012 harmonia mundi recording of choral music by Wolfgang Rihm.
Their most recent harmonic mundi recording was released at the beginning of this month, but Good Friday may well be the most appropriate day to discuss it. It offers up two compositions by Alfred Schnittke, both influenced by his baptism as a Roman Catholic in 1982. This was a rather daring move for a citizen of the Soviet Union, but he already had a reputation for his almost violent approach to harsh dissonances. Soviet authorities seem to have been comparatively tolerant at that time, even allowing him to make numerous journeys abroad. Perhaps those authorities assumed that Schnittke’s profession of faith would be as harmlessly abstract as was his approach to composition.
The major work on this recording is the Penitential Psalms (“Stikhi pokayannïye” in Russian transliteration). These are twelve relatively short pieces for mixed a cappella choir, composed in 1987. In spite of the title, the texts are not, strictly speaking, liturgical. Rather, they are based on sixteenth-century sources that reflect on different aspects of both Old and New Testaments. Those texts are only sung in the first eleven of the pieces in this collection, while the last is hummed without any text. The remainder of the recording consists of three settings of hymns from the Orthodox Church prayer book, composed in 1984 for eight-part mixed a cappella chorus.
Given the nature of his text sources, it may be fair to say that Schnittke was less interested in liturgical practices and more with historical traditions that probably reach back even further than the sixteenth century. In this respect the music provides him with yet another dimension of historical exploration, similar to those pursued in his instrumental music. Thus, it is not surprising to encounter the use of a bass drone, which is probably the idiom most familiar to Western ears listening to Russian liturgical music.
Having had the opportunity to listen to four of the Penitential Psalms in concert, I was also struck by the fact that the dissonances were neither as harsh nor as sustained as those I had come to expect from Schnittke’s instrumental music. This suggests that, where the performance of music was concerned, Schnittke was not quite as abstract as the Soviet authorities may have taken him to be. He realized that singers in an a cappella choir have to listen to each other acutely to establish a firm sense of pitch within the entire ensemble. If dissonances get too thick, there is a problem with each singer being able to establish and utilize the most effect reference points accessible through such listening. Listening to this music in performance, it was easy to imagine that Schnittke appreciated this difficulty and deployed his dissonances (still rhetorically effective) in such a way that they could be sung both confidently and effectively.
It is also clear that Schnittke’s respect for the words matched his attentiveness to the music. In that respect the thoroughness of the texts in the accompanying booklet (including transliterations of the Russian) is both valuable and highly appreciated. This is definitely a side of Schnittke that one does not associate with his instrumental compositions. The attentive listener needs all the support that can be mustered to appreciate the dissonances, and many of those dissonances have to do with Schnittke’s highly personal relationship to the texts he has selected to set.