June 29, 2023


Bach: St. John Passion. Thomas Cooley and Derek Chester, tenors; Paul Max Tipton, bass-baritone; Nola Richardson, soprano; Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor; Harrison Hintzsche, baritone; Cantata Collective conducted by Nicholas McGegan. AVIE. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Music from SEAMUS, Volume 32. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     In a sense, there is something ever-new about Bach, as interpretations of his works multiply and performers learn how his music sounded in his own day and how it was modified in later times. The St. John Passion manages to be new based purely on its own history: Bach wrote it in 1724 and then revised it in 1725, 1730 and 1749 – with the final revision usually heard today although it was never performed in Bach’s lifetime. Thus, the music was already on the verge of outliving its creator when Bach died in 1750. This earlier of the two surviving Passions by Bach was, like his other religious music, Lutheran in outlook, but has long since transcended its original purpose and even, through its sheer beauty and emotional drama, some of its religious significance. But the best modern performances – to which the new one on AVIE conducted by Nicholas McGegan can now be added – continue to treat the work as a deeply felt expression of faith that, despite its emotional intensity, employs formal elements expected by churchgoers of Bach’s time and thereafter. The Cantata Collective interpretation is historically aware and is sensitive both to Baroque expectations and to the music’s intended emotional impact. It follows the typical vocal assignations employed nowadays: a tenor for the demanding Evangelist part, which follows exactly the words of John chapters 18 and 19 in the Luther Bible; a bass or bass-baritone for Jesus; and with Pilate’s words and the bass arias given to another low voice (bass or, as here, baritone). The minor-key opening of the entire work immediately sets its somber tone, and the intensity of the narration never flags through the almost two hours of the Passion. The choruses are especially emotive in this new recording: O große Lieb, Dein Will gescheh, Ach großer König and In meines Herzens Grunde are highly affecting. The emotional underpinning of the arias also comes through with great sensitivity: Von den Stricken and Ach, mein Sinn in Part I, and Betrachte, meine Seel and Eilt, ihr angefochtnen in Part II are among the most richly involving. The well-sized chamber choir and well-balanced instrumental ensemble collaborate throughout with great sensitivity and engagement, and the overall experience of this exceptionally well-recorded live performance is one of attending a highly meaningful church service even if one does not happen to be a member of the particular denomination for which the music was created. The ability of Bach’s sacred music to transcend specificity of belief as well as the very extended time period since its creation is a source of enduring wonder – and is tied directly to performances as knowledgeable, elegant and self-assured as this one.

     It is highly unlikely that anything produced by SEAMUS, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music of the United States, will ever reach a Bach-sized audience or have Bach-style staying power. But that is scarcely the point for the avant-garde composers who use SEAMUS as a membership society within which they can test and sometimes extend the limits of acoustic instruments, voices, and electronics of all sorts. The 32nd volume of SEAMUS creations, available on New Focus Recordings, offers seven pieces that fit quite comfortably into the SEAMUS universe and that are, by design, aimed by SEAMUS members at other SEAMUS members and perhaps a small “extended family” of sorts that finds productions and sounds of this sort congenial. All seven works on the CD feature electronics, of course, but only one – Eli Stone’s Where Water Meets Memory – is solely for electronics. Stone’s piece actually concludes the disc, mixing predictable watery sounds with various instrumental samplings to produce a sense of hearing music performed directly adjacent to, if not underneath, ocean waves. The disc opens with progressively smaller TVs (in a typical modern affectation, the first two words have no capital letters) by Kristopher Bendrick. This includes voice, flute, and piano in a sound world filled with gasps and partial words. Flowering Dandelions by Kyong Mee Choi has an interesting Bach connection, being a partial paraphrase of the Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1014. But the connection with Bach is more intellectual than visceral or, for that matter, musical, although tiny Bach fragments do appear from time to time. Snared, Wired, Crashed by Adam Mirza centers on percussion and on the contrast between high volume and complete silence. Chimera’s Garden by Lisa Renée Coons uses an alto flute that is virtually unidentifiable amid the almost-understandable verbiage and frequent background sounds that constantly bleed into the foreground. Robert McClure’s bloom (another title without a capital letter) includes a piano that comments in bits and pieces on a kind of electronic haze that permeates the aural atmosphere. And Life is by Carolyn Borcherding employs a baritone saxophone to produce small sound nuggets based on a genuine musical instance (an ascending major seventh) that is repeated, transformed, developed and eventually subsumed within an electronic environment. None of these pieces would constitute “music” in Bach’s terms, and none is intended to evoke the sorts of connections and emotions that Bach consistently brought to his works. Instead, these SEAMUS creations explore sonic realms where music intersects other elements of sound and life in general, and where like-minded people can investigate some of the outer limits of aural productions and forms of communication.

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