Alfred Schnittke's Penitential Psalms are not settings of biblical psalms, but of a set of Old Russian texts published not long before Schnittke wrote these a cappella pieces in 1988. They are less eclectic in style than many of this composer's other works, drawing on the tradition of Russian Orthodox church music, with its dense harmonies, that matches the text. The work was composed for an event marking the 1,000th anniversary of the advent of Christianity in Russia, and it has a nifty double structure. Its central text is that of the sixth psalm (sample track 6), describing the martyrdom of Boris and Gleb, the sons of the baptized founder Grand Prince Vladimir during the Kievan Rus. The other texts are gloomy meditations circling around this event, but also gaining in inner intensity. The second trajectory emerges at the end in mostly hummed Pslam No. 12, as if the spiritual experience involved has transcended language. The performances by the RIAS Kammerchor under Hans-Christoph Rademann are wonderful throughout, but in this demanding piece, with high notes sustained at very low volumes, they're sublime. The simpler Three Spiritual Songs at the end of the album bring down the considerable tension effectively, and Harmonia Mundi's engineering at Berlin's Jesus-Christus-Kirche is impressive indeed. Schnittke fans have an added attraction here: Rademann contributes a note explaining how the performers have revised the commonly used score in favor of dynamics they believe more closely match Schnittke's own intentions. But this is a worthwhile Schnittke album for anyone interested in the composer or in contemporary choral music in general.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|Zwölf Bußverse für gemischten Chor a capella|
|Drei geistliche Gesänge für achtstimmigen genischten Chor|