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Music Review: Schnittke/Raskatov – Symphony No. 9/Nunc Dimittis

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The story of Alfred Schnittke's final composition — presented here as the premiere recording of his Ninth Symphony — is not without its classical intrigue. The image of a dying composer, battling poor health to allow his shaky hand to scribble out his final musical breath, immediately brings to mind the image from Amadeus of the great master struggling to finish his own Requiem before his flame was extinguished. It has a tragic romanticism to it, and is compelling as a tale. But is the end product as compelling as the idea of it?

Schnittke's final work was left in a state of a damaged relic, with some sections an almost illegible scrawl. His wife sought out trusted colleagues of her husband to complete his manuscript, finally settling on fellow Russian composer Alexander Raskatov. Raskatov's task was to decipher the score and adjust as needed, in keeping with his intimate knowledge of Schnittke's works and his stylistic development during his later years.

The opening Andante starts early in a polytonal nature, with strings gently wavering between chords and clusters before launching into their rather fractured, and almost pained, journey throughout this movement. There is a restlessness at play here, with sections of subdued melancholic reverie set next to and against passages of discordant outbursts of brass punctuated by percussion. The composer's wife had alluded to the sense that this symphony was done so with his own mortality and exit from this life firmly in mind. It's easy to envision even this isolated movement as developing some of those ideas, mixing aspects of both a peaceful and painful departure.

The Moderato and closing Presto movements seem to swim in much the same waters, but unfortunately with less determinism. Schnittke's famed polystylistic approach could be seen to apply as much to his structure of symphonic form as it does to the execution within sections. The Moderato is cut from the same cloth as the Andante, but neither seems to develop the idea nor support it. The Presto is, predictably, both more lively and steadily paced, but its resolution feels unsatisfying and incomplete. And it may very well be incomplete; we may never know.

But the story of this work's unfinished nature seems to carry over to its realization as well. While the Dresdner Philharmonie plays ably, the performance seems unsure and errs on the side of reserved safety. You get the sense that everyone is turning around and asking the ghost of Schnittke, "Is that right?" The work is not without its own power and pathos in spots, but it's tempered by a lack of direction.

In the notes to this set, Raskatov is quick to point out that his accompanying piece — a rather non-traditional Nunc Dimittis — is inspired by Schnittke's Ninth, as his suspicion was that the composer might have envisioned a fourth vocal movement. This is speculation, of course, but I think he wisely chose the course of distancing himself from not playing prognosticator to Schnittke's unfinished business, but also to deliver his own inspired, and arguably more complete, tribute.

Written for orchestra with mezzo-soprano and men's chorus, the work is based on two sets of texts: a passage by Starets Siluan that seems to be inspired by the traditional nunc dimittis text from the New Testament book of Luke; and a passage by Joseph Brodsky, a favorite of Schnittke's. Both the traditional text and the ones used here focus on images of passing from this life to the next after completing your calling or when your service here is otherwise done. It is, therefore, a fitting and posthumous tribute to the late composer, as well as a fitting parallel to the mindset he may have been in while finishing his Ninth Symphony.

Raskatov's Nunc Dimittis, however, is not more complete in terms of accessibility, but rather in scope and resolution. Here the Hillard Ensemble plays more subdued vocal texture, set against the often piercing and acrobatic twentieth-century vocal accents of the mezzo. But this piece feels sure of itself, and has a more noticeable and measured line. Although it isn't meant to be a finale for the Ninth, the inspiration does come through. Instrumentation and tonal color is inspired by Schnittke's final work, and in some way does help bring the overall experience to a more satisfying close.

About David R Perry