Philadelphia Singers showcase Schnittke's 'Choir Concerto'

Posted: May 01, 2013

When first heard, Alfred Schnittke's Choir Concerto seems like an unapproachable musical anomaly - a piece that crashed into the repertoire with undeniable greatness but with challenges so steep that performers might not know where to start. Yet the Philadelphia Singers took the piece out of its ivory tower Sunday and put it where it belongs: In your face.

When he wrote the piece in the 1980s, Schnittke was known for uninhibited explosiveness in symphonic works and operas that symbolized the old Soviet Union breaking free of Brezhnevian torpor and propelling itself toward a long-delayed arrival in the musical vanguard.

But when Schnittke dispensed with his sidesplitting irony, satire, and violence, the chrysalis that fell away revealed a Choir Concerto unlike anything before. Here, the composer consolidated his impulses. Imagine Quentin Tarantino directing A Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Wisely, Sunday's program was titled Tchaikovsky and Schnittke, with music director David Hayes starting the concert with Tchaikovsky's Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom that, in the 1870s, had broken down the icon-clad formality of Russian liturgical music, allowing secular composers to set sacred texts without censorship.

Also wisely, Hayes performed roughly half the piece, choosing the more composed sections that revealed the shoulders Schnittke stood upon for his Choir Concerto. The pairing revealed a fundamental difference. Tchaikovsky was about straightforward delivery of the spiritual message; Schnittke was on a poetic journey with religiosity as the route to an intimate confession. The sometimes-unruly acoustics of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul cooperated with both works.

Schnittke's text choices weren't mainstream, taken from the Book of Lamentations by the 10th-century Armenian saint Grigor Narekatsi. The concerto element hails from a well-established Russian genre that, in this piece, took the form of blocks of choral sound - often with hugely dramatic, unpredictable progressions into dissonance - with soloistic ostinatos and countermelodies. It's still Schnittke, so countermelodies wail like banshees and the piece buzzes with inner activity that's incredibly daunting for unaccompanied choir.

Any Western performance of Russian choral music prompts questions of interpretive veracity: Can Americans fathom the religious and political atmosphere from which the piece came? Not fully, but the Philadelphia Singers had good language coaching and brought an element of color to the piece that was more than compensation for the inner fire you hear from Russian performances. Even in the intentionally plain Tchaikovsky, some passages were downright kaleidoscopic. Schnittke's ending was magical, with the sound fading away gradually like a setting sun.

Have the Philadelphia Singers ever been better?


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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