In four movements, Schnittke sets the third chapter of the10th-century Armenian monk Gregory of Narek's "Book of Mournful Songs," his poignant and consistently self-referential conversations with God. Ironically, given what one knows about Schnittke's penchant for irony, this piece has no irony, or else it's the irony of composing a completely earnest spiritual work before religion had made its Russian comeback. The 40-minute piece seems to float timelessly, but with increasing urgency and increasingly uncanny harmonies, and voices, sometimes very high, that seem to leap out of the general choral drone like solar flares. I can imagine a more Russian performance — with more idiomatic Russian, for one thing — and gutsier, earthier. But I was deeply impressed.
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The Pärt Mass is, if anything, an even stranger piece. Pärt's devotional impulse is here all air — buoyant, angelic, cool, abstract, with few attempts to colorize the familiar drama of the Latin text. The crucifixion is as light-winged as the resurrection. It's as if the mass were being sung not on earth but in heaven — not beseeching, not lamenting — like a distant memory of Christianity. The final "Dona nobis pacem" seemed almost more interrogative than imperative. If you had told me that the Pärt was actually composed by Schnittke, and the Schnittke by Pärt, I might have believed you.
PS. More good musical news. Will Chapman, executive director of Monadnock Music and one-time marketing director of the late Opera Boston has just announced that as of February 1, Gil Rose, founder and conductor of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and longtime artistic director of Opera Boston, will take over as artistic director of Monadnock Music.
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