If you think you know what to expect from the music of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) - bleak or ironic (or both), each work full of startling stylistic contrasts - then you might be surprised by his Choir Concerto, a 40-minute masterpiece in which the composer demonstrates a superlative technique and an ear attuned to beauty. Setting aside despair, irony and 'polystylism', Schnittke offers his listeners a serene and radiant work which draws deeply on the traditions of Russian Orthodoxy and the great Russian choral tradition. Lovers of the Tchaikovsky Liturgy and the Rachmaninov Vespers need not hesitate here. If it ever sounds like 'modern music' it's only in some of its harmonies, which can recall the lushest chords of Arvo Pärt, but overall the Choir Concerto is a one-off wonder of majestic consonance and luminous choral colour.
The long opening section, 'O master of all living things', contains stretch after stretch of beautiful music, with an opening paragraph that delivers a memorable melody, sumptuous harmonies, gorgeous textures, a masterly ebb and flow and ravishing changes of key and mode. The structure is, as tradition permits, repetitive - though Schnittke handles his repetitiveness discreetly. Thus, a recurring feature is a shifting pattern based on a three-note falling figure, which the composer initially ranges across one major or minor third only to affect a magical brightening of key later to thrillingly affirmative effect. This is set against a chant on one note and enhanced on its later appearances by melismas - the movement's most stunning passage containing a shining mass of them. Homophony is the prime method, with counterpoint being confined to decorative touches and brief, simple bursts of imitation. Emotions of elation and heart's ease will hopefully be experienced, though there are undercurrents of lamentation too.
A background of 'alliluyias' is one hypnotic feature of 'I, an expert in human passions', the second movement. This has a main theme based on a minor second, set in motion against itself in the other voices and with homophonic passages for contrast. Blazes of bright tonality interrupt the chromatic tug of the music associated with this theme - major countering minor - and the movement's climax is wonderfully fervent. Listen out for the magical soaring soprano line that is placed as a counter-melody when the theme returns late on. The ending is a well-judged fade-out.
'God, grant deliverance from sin' begins in black, penitential colours with male voices only presenting the chant-like main theme and remains generally a more sombre movement with a keening two-note figure on a minor second (which fans of James MacMillan might also appreciate) emerging midway out of a brighter major second-based figure and with a lamenting babble following close on. Radiant homophony yields mostly to gently interweaving lines and minor-key harmonies. It's very powerful stuff. There is another brief but thrilling soprano solo to listen out for as she soars out over the male chorus and provokes the mixed chorus's entry.
The final section 'Complete this work which I began' brings homophony back centre-stage and is supremely lovely in its textures - radiant serenity flooding back in. Its opening bars may again remind you a little of Pärt but soon the music sings out with Romantic warmth. Affirmation soon follows. Many of this movement's harmonies are gems, and simple melodies ride on them. 'Amens' on rising major thirds emerge from high sopranos, gently, over a haunting cloud of D major and conclude the work enchantingly.
For those unfamiliar with what Alfred Schnittke's music usually sounds like, please try a few of the following pieces:
Concerto Grosso No.1