This 2009 ECM disc containing the world premiere of Alfred Schnittke's Ninth Symphony, the composer's final work, will be mandatory listening for fans of post-modernist Russian music, or contemporary music in general. Begun after the premiere of Schnittke's Eighth Symphony in 1994 and unfinished at the composer's death in 1998, the Ninth existed only as three movements of manuscript (and indecipherable manuscript at that: a stroke had paralyzed Schnittke's right side, forcing him to write with his left hand) until composer Alexandr Raskatov deciphered the manuscript and conductor Dennis Russell Davies presented its premiere. As presented in this January 2008 recording, Schnittke's Ninth continues and extends the austere sound world of the Eighth into ever more severe zones. There's no denying this is the authentic voice of Schnittke: the etiolated textures, abrupt gestures, timeless tempos, and haunting themes have clear roots in the composer's preceding works. Davies and the excellent Dresdner Philharmonie appear acutely conscious that the Ninth was the composer's last work, but the tone of leave-taking is inherent in Schnittke's inward music.
Schnittke's Ninth may or may not be judged the equal or even the superior of his Eighth, but it is vastly better than Raskatov's own Nunc dimittis that accompanies it here. Scored for mezzo-soprano, men's voices, and orchestra and intended as a Tombeau pour M. Schnittke, the Nunc dimittis is extremely loud and exceedingly abrasive. Though effectively performed by Davies and the Dresdner Philharmonie with mezzo-soprano Elena Vassilieva and the Hilliard Ensemble, Raskatov's tribute implicitly diminishes the man it explicitly admires. But after hearing it, the listener can be certain that its composer added nothing of his own music to the score of Schnittke's Ninth. Recorded in ECM's transparent yet immediate digital sound, this disc is unquestionably one of the most important issues of the year.