Listeners accustomed to the uncompromising spikiness characteristic of much of Alfred Schnittke's music may be astonished by the luminous sweetness of his Twelve Penitential Verses for mixed voices a cappella, written in 1988 to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Christianity's arrival in Russia. This stylistic departure seems to have been as much a surprise to the composer as to anyone. He wrote that when he was copying out his final draft, "I realized that they could only have been so and not otherwise. This is beyond any doubt, but it confused me, as well, as if I had not copied my own work, but someone else's." That's not to say that these are examples of chaste euphony. These are, after all, penitential texts and involve a fair amount of anguished dissonance, but Schnittke's language here has an emotional transparency that's immediately gripping. Many of the pieces have an archaic quality, with simple chant-like melodies spun out over vocal drones. The anonymous 16th century Russian texts are laments over past sins, but most end with an affirmation of confidence in God's mercy that's expressed in a cathartic climax of blazing radiance, with a harmonic lushness similar to that of composers like Lauridsen and Rautavaara. The fourth and fifth movements, in particular, build to an almost shocking harmonic brilliance. The final movement is a haunting, valedictory wordless vocalize that leads beautifully into the wordless Voices of Nature for women's voices and vibraphone, which sounds like it could be a natural extension of the larger work.
Marcus Creed leads the estimable SWR Vokalensemble in poignant and nuanced performances. The group has a clean, unfussy tone that's well suited to the character of the music. The straightforwardness of the singing conveys the sometimes searing emotional honesty of the texts and makes the warmth of the ecstatic outbursts all the more dazzling. The sound of the beautifully engineered CD captures the clarity and resonance of the singing and creates a clean, natural ambience. Highly recommended of fans of new choral music and anyone who wants to explore a fresh facet of Schnittke's work.