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Schnittke: Symphony No 9; Raskatov: Nunc Dimittis / Russell Davies, Vassilieva

Release Date: 03/31/2009 
Label:  Ecm   Catalog #: 4766994   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Alfred SchnittkeAlexandr Raskatov
Conductor:  Dennis Russell Davies
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dresden Philharmonic OrchestraHilliard Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 53 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHNITTKE (recon. Raskatov) Symphony No. 9. RASKATOV Nunc dimittis, in memoriam Alfred Schnittke 1 Dennis Russell Davies, cond; Dresden P; Elena Vassilieva (mez); Hilliard Ens 1 ECM 0012667 (53:04 Text and Translation)

When Alfred Schnittke died in 1998, he left three movements of his Ninth Symphony complete, but written with his Read more left hand (the right side of his body was by then paralyzed) in a barely legible manuscript. From the booklet notes, it’s not entirely clear whether the composer’s autograph is in short score or includes orchestration, or whether he planned more than three movements (though from the sound of the work, my hunch is that he did). The composer’s widow Irina first settled on the composer Nikolai Korndorf as the one to bring the piece to performance standard, but he died of a brain tumor soon after beginning. So next chosen was a protégé of Schnittke, Alexander Raskatov (b. 1953). This was an inspired choice for more than one reason. First, he’s a wonderful composer, and second, he stipulated that he write a new, separate choral movement to be played with the piece. More about this aspect in a moment, but the parallel that comes to mind is the occasional pairing of Bruckner’s Te Deum with his Ninth (in three movements), though of course those were both written by the same composer.

The Schnittke that we have I find a puzzling work. It brings to mind the Churchill line about Russia being a “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” This is not because the surface is impenetrable—rather, it’s busy but not cluttered, harmonically non-abrasive, with appropriately intense outbursts. While the second movement is ostensibly slow and the third a Presto, to my ear the general tempo-sense throughout is moderato agitato.

I suppose the thing that’s truly strange about the piece is that all the way through, its ideas are dominated by scales. Not motoric minimalism, but rising and falling scales of various constructions. It’s almost a seascape with these scalar waves, but not impressionistic either. I can’t help but feel making a piece out of the most basic, even banal, material may be something of a didactic point, or a dark joke in the spirit of Soviet era humor (even though the piece postdates the fall of that empire). Whatever the intended point, ultimately the piece feels unfocused and meandering to me. While it suggests it might have a hidden program, it’s nowhere as truly strange and quirky as the Shostakovich 15th. Perhaps there is an element here of keeping death at bay by sheer will and activity, no matter what. But I don’t want to read too much in here, or sound dismissive, as frankly I wonder if I would have half of Schnittke’s tenacity and courage in the face of such devastating health issues.

No matter what my reservations about the Schnittke, however, the Raskatov is a revelation. The work is a blended setting of two poems, one by Joseph Brodsky, the other by Starez Siluan, a monk-poet. Both deal with the passage from life to death, respectively seen from secular and sacred perspectives. The impassioned mezzo line and the Hilliard Ensemble’s pure-toned, liturgical sound musically suggest this dichotomy. It is somber, dramatic, chilling. The music is clear in its structure, ritualistic, and imaginatively orchestrated, especially with the percussion creating a hieratic structure through its repetitive interventions. And those softly grinding low woodwind ostinatos get under your skin too.

I haven’t heard a lot of Raskatov’s music, but he first came to my attention in the 1990s in a Chant du Monde recording—which now I can’t find anywhere! I do remember that it was some of the most deeply moving “postmodern” music I’d heard, creatively “rewriting” Romantic practice while not degenerating into facile pastiche. Later, in Fanfare 27:4, I reviewed his “ The Seasons” Digest on Nonesuch 79803, which I found “neo-Stravinskian.” The Nunc dimittis strikes me as a piece by a composer who has found his voice over a long hard path, a reward won by confrontation with past masters.

I will admit that, while I have heard many Schnittke works, I still don’t have an overarching sense of his śuvre , especially with the symphonies. His final work may suddenly clarify for me at some point, and I’ll eat these words. But for the moment, the thing I enthusiastically recommend is Raskatov’s new piece, and the direction his music seems to be taking.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 9 by Alfred Schnittke
Conductor:  Dennis Russell Davies
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1995-1997; Hamburg, Germany 
Nunc dimitis by Alexandr Raskatov
Conductor:  Dennis Russell Davies
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hilliard Ensemble,  Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 

Featured Sound Samples

Symphony no 9 (Schnittke): I. --
Nunc dimittis (Raskatov)

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