It may be years before we can tell if the performances in BIS' set of Alfred Schnittke's complete symphonies are great or not. There is hardly any competition, at best one or two other recordings for each work, and although most of the alternatives were made with the great Gennady Rozhdestvensky at the podium, they are not necessarily definitive, since most of Schnittke's symphonies were composed in the 1980s and 1990s, and no performance tradition has yet evolved to determine if they are centralist or eccentric performances. It may turn out that BIS' varied group of conductors has turned in a varied lot of performances. Leif Segerstam's interpretations of the First and Second might be considered wildly radical, while Tadaaki Otaka's interpretations of the Sixth and Seventh might be conservative. Okko Kamu's reading of the Fourth could come to be compared with Bruno Walter's of Mahler's Fourth for sympathetic insight, while Eri Klas' account of the Third could prove as insensitive as Leonard Bernstein's performance of Sibelius' Third. Lü Jia's take on the Eighth and Owain Arwel Hughes' on the Ninth might be counted as canonical, while Neeme Järvi's version of the Fifth might be discounted as a run-through.
Two things, though, are clearly apparent after listening to this set many times: Alfred Schnittke is a great symphonist and his works in that form favorably compare with those by his direct forbears, Dmitry Shostakovich and Gustav Mahler. Like them, Schnittke can contain the whole world and everything in it in his symphonies, yet they are still wholly personal and often quite intimate, particularly the later symphonies. Like his predecessors, he can be bitterly ironic but sometimes sweetly sentimental in tone, massively brutal but sometimes delicately tender in effect, and he is always as adept at expressing an extraordinary range of human emotion and experience in his themes and harmonies. Like them, Schnittke in his later symphonies deals with the eternal verities -- love of life and fear of death -- in a manner that is at once deeply personal but universally comprehensible. Schnittke's harmonic language is intensely dissonant in the First Symphony, and the later symphonies are not always any easier going, but the composer's overwhelming urge to communicate makes his music immensely compelling. BIS' digital sound is clear, clean, and immediate.