Bach: St. Matthew Passion. Werner Güra, Evangelist; Stephen Morscheck, Jesus; Lucy Crowe, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone; Bertrand Grunenwald, bass; Schola Cantorum of Oxford, Maîtrise de Paris and Orchestre de Chambre de Paris conducted by John Nelson. Soli Deo Gloria. $34.99 (2 DVDs).
Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil. Latvian Radio Choir conducted by Sigvards Kļava. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).
Kaija Saariaho: La Passion de Simone. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Tapiola Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Ondine. $16.99 (SACD).
Mohammed Fairouz: Tahwidah (2008); Chorale Fantasy (2010); Native Informant—Sonata for Solo Violin (2011); Posh (2011); For Victims (2011); Jebel Lebnan (2011). Melissa Hughes, soprano; David Krakauer, clarinet; Borromeo String Quartet; Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Christopher Thompson, “baritenor”; Steven Spooner, piano; David Kravitz, baritone; Imani Winds. Naxos. $9.99.
Most people today use the word “passion” in a strictly secular sense, but the word has a much deeper meaning in religion, referring to the physical, mental and spiritual suffering of Jesus – and, by extension, of others – in the hours before death. And there is no more-intense musical passion in this sense, none more passionately (in any sense) created, than Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. A work that needs no visual support and one with which visuals can actually interfere in a recording, distracting listeners/viewers from the music’s depth and core meaning, the St. Matthew Passion rarely gets a visual presentation of such high quality as to merit serious purchase consideration by Bach lovers. But it gets one from John Nelson and the forces under his command. Soli Deo Gloria – Latin for “glory to God alone,” a phrase Bach himself employed to explain why he wrote his music – has produced a remarkably fine two-DVD set in which all the soloists sing with dramatic intensity and a feeling of spiritual fervor, the choral parts are delivered with equal understanding of the words and of Baroque style, and the orchestral playing is simply wonderful – supportive always, taking the lead when it should, supple and energetic and heartfelt throughout. Werner Güra is highly expressive as the narrator, the Evangelist, while Stephen Morscheck manages to emphasize the human side of Jesus while never downplaying his inherent divine nature. The other soloists, their vocal ranges appropriately reflecting the total span of the human voice, are uniformly excellent. And so is the clarity of the high-definition recording, in which director Louise Narboni manages to keep the video of this live performance from 2011as unintrusive into a listener’s/viewer’s experience as it can be. Narboni also directs a 52-minute bonus video that is much more down-to-earth than the performance: it features rehearsals of the work and discussions of it by Nelson, who clearly has a strong affinity for the music and the skill to bring out what he knows. This is a first-rate performance in which the video elements, far from undermining the work’s effectiveness, actually enhance it – and that is a real rarity.
The All-Night Vigil by Rachmaninoff is something of a rarity, too, being performed and recorded far less often than Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, piano concertos and other instrumental music. And this piece is fascinating to hear on Ondine’s very well-recorded SACD with the Latvian Radio Choir under Sigvards Kļava. This is an a cappella work in which Rachmaninoff took to heart what was at the time (1915) a Russian Orthodox Church proscription against the use of instruments in sacred music. Sometimes incorrectly called Vespers – only the first six of its 15 movements are settings of texts from the Russian Orthodox canonical hour of Vespers – this was one of Rachmaninoff’s own favorite pieces, and he asked that the fifth movement be sung at his funeral. The work is written in three different styles of chant, and depends heavily on the quality of the very low bass voices for which Rachmaninoff wrote the foundational parts. The Latvian Radio Choir’s basses are not as deep and resonant as some heard in earlier recordings, including the very first, made in 1965 under Alexander Sveshnikov. But they are strong and quite expressive, and indeed the expressiveness of the entire ensemble is what makes this recording so special. The harmonization is particularly good here – Rachmaninoff creates up to eight-part harmony and, in one section, 11-part – and the voices interweave with strength and emotional commitment throughout. Strictly speaking, this is not a religious “passion,” for although it focuses largely on Jesus and eventually proclaims his triumphant resurrection, it does not dwell on his last hours and martyrdom. But the work has plenty of passion in the “intensity” sense, and is delivered in this recording with style, attentiveness to detail, and a fine sense of choral balance and emotional commitment.
On another new Ondine SACD, the traditional religious sense of “passion” is embodied in the title of La Passion de Simone by Kaija Saariaho (born 1952). Like Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, this work has 15 parts, here called “stations,” with an obvious reference to the “stations of the cross.” Indeed, Saariaho links episodes of Simone Weil’s life to those stations – but the fact that the work is about Weil rather than Jesus or a more-typical martyr gives La Passion de Simone a distinctly modern slant. So does the fact that Saariaho employs electronic as well as conventional instruments. Weil (1909-1943) was something of an aberration among modern left-wing intellectuals, increasingly embracing religion over time and genuinely living out her beliefs. Indeed, her death at age 34 was in a sense a suicide, since she deliberately restricted her food intake because of her feelings about the near-starvation endured by so many during World War II. Weil was a darling of the Left through the 1960s and remains popular in some quarters at universities, especially in Europe. Certainly her increasing religious preoccupations, which shaded into mysticism, make her a fascinating subject for biography in our increasingly secular age. But despite its modern instrumentation and approach to its material, including use of a silent dancer, La Passion de Simone is more of a straightforward oratorio than any sort of in-depth psychological or intellectual exploration of Weil’s life and works. Dawn Upshaw, for whom the role of Simone was originally written, is a fine soprano soloist, and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the choral and orchestral forces with a sure hand, but La Passion de Simone never really catches fire. It is a bit too devoted to its subject, a bit too determined to make her life fit into the artificial “stations of the cross” framework, and ultimately not particularly gripping through much of its length (it runs more than an hour). The high-quality performance and some interesting musical elements earn this release a (+++) rating, but La Passion de Simone is unlikely to catch on as a major choral, much less religious, work for our time.
The new Naxos CD of the music of Mohammed Fairouz (born 1985) also gets a (+++) rating: it has high points and effectively intense moments, but much of the music sounds predictable and not particularly distinctive. The six works here are all world première recordings, and collectively they give a rather comprehensive portrait of this young and prolific composer, who favors vocal music but has also written four symphonies (and much else) to date. But it is not generally the vocal works here (such as Tahwidah, for soprano and clarinet, and Posh, for a male singer who can handle both baritone and tenor ranges, with piano) that convey the most passion in either a secular or religious sense; rather, it is the instrumental ones that recall Fairouz’ Egyptian heritage and mourn the victims of events there that plumb greater depths. True, For Victims for baritone and string quartet, his lament for those who died in the Egyptian revolution, is certainly heartfelt and effectively constructed, if somewhat predictable in its emotional flow. Also true, even when not writing vocal music, Fairouz seems to strive toward vocal forms, as in Chorale Fantasy for string quartet. But the most-effective pieces here are the most purely instrumental: Jebel Lebnan, written for and beautifully played by the Imani Winds and built around a central lamentation that feels more intense than those expressed vocally; and Native Informant, a five-movement solo-violin sonata written for Rachel Barton Pine and, again, excellently played by the performer for whom it was created. This piece too has a central movement, called “For Egypt,” that reaches out beyond specificity toward a general sense of connectedness with social and political troubles in every nation and every era. When he taps into widely felt emotion of this sort by exploring his own feelings – that is, his passions – about specific events in and related to Egypt, Fairouz writes affecting and effective works that come across better than his somewhat over-earnest vocal settings. Since he is still in his 20s, it is reasonable to expect that his style and the emotional trappings of his music will evolve and develop over time, from a foundation that has already produced some very well-constructed music.
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