The late Alfred Schnittke was a man without a country. Born in what was a largely autonomous region of Germans living around the Volga River in Russia, he was half German and half Jewish, and thus wholly suspect in the eyes of the Soviet government for most of his career. Matters were helped little by Schnittke's refusal to stick to an accepted style — or to any single style, accepted or not. He was often compared to the American composer Charles Ives for his collage tendencies: The ghosts of Mozart and Haydn might poke through a modernist fabric, and the sounds of jazz or of Russian Orthodox liturgical chant might jostle for room in an intimate piece of chamber music.
Perhaps Schnittke's most emotional, personal and almost conventionally beautiful works are his choral pieces, and the Concerto For Choir must rank among his best. It is rarely heard in the West, although the Kronos Quartet has recorded an instrumental version of the second movement, under the title "Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief." Here, the original choral version labors under an even more prolix and dour title; but the music is transcendent — an otherworldly, dimly lit shimmer of sound that seems to reflect Schnittke's own doubts and his debt to Orthodox chant. This four-part work offers moments of drama, anguished emotion, and fleeting glimpses of celestial peace.
In contrast to Schnittke's almost unearthly work, the Lamentations of Jeremiah by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera seems to echo the very earthy sounds of his better-known orchestral works, which were often inspired by traditional South American folk rhythms. The exception is the glowing second movement, beautifully sung by the Choir Of St. Ignatius Loyola, one of several first-rate choirs in New York led by the indefatigable Kent Tritle. The recording shows off Tritle's knack for creative programming and clear, sympathetic interpretation.