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The Helsinki Philharmonic Choir celebrates Schnittke

The Russian composer would have turned 80 this year, and several Helsinki-based musicians and ensembles have quietly acknowledged this anniversary. On this evening’s concert, the Helsinki Philharmonic Choir performed Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns and Requiem.

The Three Sacred Hymns were apparently written in the course of a single evening after repeated requests from the conductor Valery Polyansky for a choral work. The music is clearly at home in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and listeners familiar with Schnittke’s more dissonant or polystylistic works may be surprised by the overt beauty and consonance of these hymns.

The Helsinki Philharmonic Choir brought excellent intonation and polished ensemble singing to this performance. Conductor Dani Juris’ attention to phrasing, in particular leading up to the third movement’s fervent climax, was deeply satisfying.

As a testament to Schnittke’s creative versatility, each of his major choral works are quite different from each other. Lacking the intense spiritual angst of the Penitential Psalms or the clear Russian Orthodox influence of the Choir Concerto, the Requiem was originally conceived as incidental music to the Schiller play Don Carlos. Like many of Schnittke’s works, the Requiem resists categorization. The opening Requiem movement is beautiful and slightly haunting in the conventional sense, while the Sanctus has a dreamy, melismatic quality. However, Schnittke’s rather unconventional instrumental accompaniment (featuring electric guitar and bass, for example) and forays into seemingly unrelated sound worlds (rock music in the Credo) make listening to this work a strange but engaging experience.

Highlights of this performance included the beautiful solo singing in the Lachrymosa and Sanctus, the wild intensity of the Dies Irae and Credo, and the delicate choral singing in the opening Reqiuem movement. Schnittke’s rather awkward intervals provided some difficulties for the choir, and there were occasional ensemble issues between the chorus and the instrumental ensemble. Overall, this was an enjoyable performance of a major work from this important composer.

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