Breathing primal air

Oct 5, 1999 at 12:00 am

ECM’s New Series makes itself home to an important connection – between sonically perfect interpretations of early music by Gesualdo, Perotin, Thomas Tallis, Orlando di Lasso, etc. (by, among others, the exceptional Hilliard Ensemble), and indispensable releases of contemporary works by Giya Kancheli, György Kurtág, Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars et al. (by the stellar likes of Kim Kashkashian, Dennis Russell Davies, Gidon Kremer and the Keller Quartet) Psalms of Repentance, Schnittke’s very modern setting of 15th century texts from the Russian Orthodox tradition, joins the two poles of this musical dialectic, suggesting that the ancient past and the vivid present are not, in fact, removed from each other.

This entirely vocal sequence begins with a murmuring that descends then rises slowly through a feeling of irrevocable loss that dominates the first verse. As the second psalm opens, a solitary voice sings in Russian, "The desert receives me as a mother her child/Soft and mute …" on the way to a very tentative rediscovery of the world of possibility, soon joined by other voices shifting, cloudlike, as in a secular nocturne by Debussy. Within moments, Schnittke begins layering musical realities as diverse as Tallis’ lamentations, Ravel’s mythologies, Orthodox liturgy and plain chant from the Middle Ages. The results are severe yet spectacular, dire but directed to whatever spiritual or preverbal experience our bodies can claim.

The excellent Swedish Radio Choir sings the 12th and last psalm "bocca chiusa" – with closed mouth – leaving us with the wordless mystery of existence, to wonder at the unanswered question posed by these sublime works. In Schnittke’s own words: "I am not the result, but merely the tool; through me something outside myself becomes audible."