Alfred Schnittke: Symphony No. 9
Alexander Raskatov: Nunc dimittis
Elena Vassilieva (mezzo-soprano), The Hilliard Ensemble, Dresdner Philharmonie, Dennis Russell Davies (conductor)
Recorded in the Lukaskirche, Dresden (January 2008) – 53’01
ECM 2025 – Booklet in German and English
Schnittke’s Ninth symphony, as reconstructed from the manuscript by Alexander Raskatov, extends the trends found in the composer’s seventh and eighth essays in the genre. The work is weighty and dark, and the sardonic polystylism of his most popular middle-period works is further eschewed for an extreme economy of motive and directness of gesture.
In the 20-minute first movement, there is a roughness to the scoring for the large orchestra, with some stratospheric horn writing and some awkward-sounding contributions from clarinet and tuba. All this is woven together with overlapping, ascending scalar figures in the strings, often occurring in different note values, giving the listener the impression of ever-overlapping waves. The movement progresses steadily to its brassy climax, and quickly recedes. This type of structure is mirrored in the quicker, shorter second and third movements. There is a latent, proto-Mahlerian eeriness in the second, with muted strings flowing here and there, chattering comments by harpsichord and oboe, and aggressive interruptions by the brass. Every once in a while the harmonic language briefly brightens, and then recedes into the more enigmatic world of the first movement. This all works its way purposefully towards a surprisingly consonant final cadence. The final “Presto” movement sounds vaguely Stravinskian, containing fanfare-like interruptions here and there. It builds once again to an enormously dissonant climax, after which a short, subdued chorale (again, echoes of Stravinsky, especially the Symphonies of Wind Instruments) brings the work to a close.
Taking its cue from some of the timbral effects of the Schnittke work, Raskatov’s Nunc dimittis combines texts of Joseph Brodsky and Russian mystic Starets Siluan. The writing for mallet percussion is especially creative, and the groaning low instruments are a superb representation of the poetry (“The roaring of time ebbed away in his ears…”). Mezzo-soprano Elena Vassilieva has a deep, rich voice that contrasts nicely with the Hilliard Ensemble’s straight-toned singing. The abrupt ending perhaps represents Schnittke’s untimely death, but I was hoping for something more resolute here, representing the “calm and silent gaze” mentioned in the text, and contrasting with the equally abrupt and dissonant ending of Schnittke’s symphony.
Performances all-around are winning. The Dresdner Philharmonie plays Schnittke’s extremely challenging score with no problem. The many high brass passages are negotiated well, and Dennis Russell Davies convincingly sculpts each movement. The recording has an extremely wide dynamic range, allowing every detail in the softest moments to blossom into enormous climaxes of extreme impact. The singers in the Raskatov piece are very forward, their beautiful singing always dominating the texture.
The booklet interview with Raskatov about his work and the reconstruction of the Schnittke manuscript contains interesting information. Two photographs of the manuscript are also contained, and one can only marvel at how Raskatov deciphered the scores, written by Schnittke after he had suffered several strokes and lost the use of his right hand. The disc is a fitting testament to a great Russian composer, and the dedication of all involved in the production is admirable.
Marcus Karl Maroney