March 28, 2024


Bach/Mendelssohn: St. Matthew Passion. Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival Orchestra conducted by Christopher Jackson. Analekta. $26.99 (2 CDs).

Christopher Tyler Nickel: Requiem. Catherine Redding, soprano; Northwest Sinfonia and Choir conducted by Clyde Mitchell. AVIE. $19.99.

Frank La Rocca: Requiem for the Forgotten; Messe des Malades; Diffusa est gratia. Benedict XVI Choir & Orchestra conducted by Richard Sparks. Cappella Records. $19.99 (SACD).

     A rediscovery and reimagining of genuine importance, the new performing edition of Mendelssohn’s version of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion offers listeners a ride in a time capsule to the 19th century’s rediscovery of a composer whose work is now considered so seminal to classical music that his neglect for some three-quarters of a century seems inconceivable. But already by the time of Bach’s death in 1750, music had moved onward from a contrapuntal focus to a homophonic one, and Johann Sebastian became known somewhat dismissively as “old Bach” while his sons, especially Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, were deemed the Bach composers of importance. It is well-known that Felix Mendelssohn was largely responsible for rescuing “old Bach” from a place in academia (where his music continued to be studied) and bringing him once more to general audiences, never again to be relegated to obscurity. It was Mendelssohn’s teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), who communicated his highly positive feelings about Bach to his pupil and laid the groundwork for Mendelssohn to resurrect the St. Matthew Passion, which was performed in 1829 – for the first time since Bach’s death – in Mendelssohn’s “updating” and rearrangement. It is important to remember that historically informed performance is a new phenomenon, having come into its own only in the past half-century or so. Until then, it was common to “revive” older music by arranging it to be more palatable to contemporary audiences – Leopold Stokowski, for one, was a master of doing just that. The idea was that the old-fashioned musical elements would not appeal to or be understood by audiences accustomed to different sounds, arrangements and orchestrations, so for older music to survive in modern times (however those were defined), it needed to be clothed in modern garments. This is what Mendelssohn did with the St. Matthew Passion, cutting about a third of it, deleting numerous arias, dropping or rearranging recitatives, and reorchestrating the work to appeal to the audiences of his time. It was the Mendelssohn version of the St. Matthew Passion, not Bach’s original, that enthralled audiences in Berlin and Leipzig when Mendelssohn brought it to them – and that opened the door to a Bach revival that eventually led to historically informed performances that, in their turn, rendered Mendelssohn’s 19th-century approach obsolete. But that does not make Mendelssohn’s version ineffective, and for those willing to open their ears and time-travel to Mendelssohn’s era, the version of the St. Matthew Passion now available on Analekta is enormously engaging, highly meaningful, and an important chance to experience a landmark in musical history. Under Christopher Jackson, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem presents the Bach/Mendelssohn work in truly exemplary fashion: the pacing is everywhere excellent, the sounds of the arias and recitatives and choruses are beautifully balanced and emotionally evocative, and the overall effect is simply remarkable – this is not Bach but a kind of alternative-universe Bach possessing different but equally impressive musical communicative skills. It is easy to hear the reasons the St. Matthew Passion reignited interest in Bach’s music, because Mendelssohn so brilliantly ensured that the work’s many high points came through clearly and provided a coherent story line and cohesive musical experience. It is only because we are today familiar with Bach’s full-length original that we can say the truncated Mendelssohn version does not fully measure up to what the composer intended. And that is true but strangely irrelevant: Jackson and the Bach Choir of Bethlehem make so strong a case for the Mendelssohn version (which has in its turn been tweaked and modified for this world premiѐre recording by modern scholars working on various fragments that Mendelssohn never incorporated into the piece) that this St. Matthew Passion, for all its inauthenticity, deserves its own place in the repertoire. Its spiritual impact – and listeners in our secular age should not forget that that was intended to be its primary reason for being – is in its own way as great as that of Bach’s original; and its historical musical value is simply inestimable. The impressiveness of what Mendelssohn did with this work can scarcely be overstated, and the impressiveness of this performance of the Bach/Mendelssohn version makes a remarkably coherent case both for the Mendelssohn adaptation and for the original, underlying St. Matthew Passion as Bach originally conceived it.

     Some contemporary composers continue to find inspiration in sacred texts that are less-favored in modern society than they were in the past but that still have considerable meaning and importance for at least some audiences. The standard Latin text for the mass for the dead, Requiem, continues to inspire and soothe many contemporary churchgoers and sensitive composers of all sorts. The world première recording of the 2019 Requiem by Christopher Tyler Nickel (born 1978) shows just how much meaning a composer in the 21st century can find in the words and concepts of this mass focused on memory of the dead and finding peace with death itself. Nickel’s Requiem is for chamber orchestra, choir and solo soprano, and it has a haunting beauty from the very first notes of the opening Introit. Far from constructing a dour edifice or a dark-hued, gloomy musical cathedral, Nickel offers from the start a sense of peace, of music flowing with feelings and enabling the emotions of the bereaved to be expressed with sorrow but without despair. This is a very interesting approach that sustains well through the first four sections of the work, the third and fourth of which use the solo soprano to very fine effect. Surprisingly, the fifth section, the usually dramatic Dies Irae, here has an affecting gentleness that initially seems out of keeping with the words but that soon pulls listeners in through its subtleties of rhythm and determination not to yield to depressive feelings. Thanks to the delicacy of the chamber-orchestra scoring and Nickel’s determination never to engage in the hyper-dramatic, this Requiem carries with it an undercurrent of peace from start to end. It is not lacking in intensity – in the Confutatis, for instance; neither is it without sadness – in the Lacrimosa, for example. But again and again, when there are clouds, beauty breaks through them and brings shafts of light. Some of the vocal settings are reminiscent of plainchant, but the music’s rhythmic structure is often quite modern conceptually and is changeable enough to keeps listeners’ ears alert no matter what words are being sung. If there is a weakness in Nickel’s overall concept, it is one of lack of contrast: for instance, the Agnus Dei, which usually proffers peace that has previously been difficult to envision, is here just one of many calming portions of the work. The penultimate Responsory is more dissonant and rhythmically insistent than anything earlier – it sounds a bit like portions of Carmina Burana – but the concluding In Paradisum, which is the longest of the work’s 19 sections, quickly transports listeners, once again, to a realm where there can be little doubt that the dead have found the peace that passeth all understanding. Nickel’s Requiem is quite atypical of works of this type and, for that reason as well as for the sheer quality of the performance on this AVIE release, is well worth hearing – even by those who observe different religious traditions or none at all.

     A very different world première recording of a recently composed Requiem shows the many ways in which the Latin words and their meaning can be tailored to multiple circumstances. Requiem for the Forgotten (2020-2023) by Frank La Rocca (born 1951) is not much over half the length of Nickel’s Requiem and is a great deal more specific in its orientation: it is a work with sociopolitical underpinnings, intended to remember and draw attention to those who are displaced, forsaken and uncared for in this world. The scoring reinforces the intention: the work calls for choir with low strings, organ and harp. La Rocca’s opening, with its dark chords underpinning declamatory voices filled with intensity and seriousness, is far more traditional for a Requiem than is Nickel’s opening, and La Rocca continues in much the same vein in the following Kyrie. Then he moves directly into contemporary geopolitical matters with a section called Commemoration: A Hymn for Ukraine. La Rocca himself has Ukrainian ancestry, so this is certainly understandable, but it turns this Requiem into something more transitory and time-specific than is usually the case for a Requiem – and makes the whole work oddly less rather than more comforting. La Rocca is selective in the texts he sets – omitting the Dies Irae altogether, for example – and as a result sculpts this Requiem for specific time-bound purposes that give it less staying power than the quality of the music would otherwise provide for it. It is very beautifully performed by the Benedict XVI Choir & Orchestra under Richard Sparks, and its earnestness is never in doubt, but it is too much of an advocacy piece to provide the sort of comfort – to the forgotten or anyone else – that La Rocca clearly wishes to offer. A more-effective piece that also features the words to various sections of the traditional Requiem is La Rocca’s Messe des Malades (“Mass for the Sick”), inspired by the health struggles of the composer’s late sister, Carin. This 2022 work, for choir and organ, opens with the Kyrie, proceeds to Gloria and Alleluia, and eventually concludes with Agnus Dei as its sixth and final movement. This piece is gently expressive and uplifting in ways that La Rocca’s Requiem for the Forgotten is not, and the massed choral portions have a sincerity and warmth that give the words a sense of timelessness in keeping with their original intent. The organ contributions are mostly modest, so Messe des Malades comes across mostly as an a cappella work. And it is a highly affecting one in this performance, with the concluding Agnus Dei quite clearly providing respite from illness of the soul, even if not that of the body. The two extended works are separated on this Cappella Records CD by a setting of Diffusa est gratia, the words from Psalm 45 speaking of grace and God’s eternal blessing. This piece does not exactly connect the two longer ones, but it provides a broader concept of grace and goodness than is offered by either of the extended pieces, with their deliberately more-specific focuses. The first-rate performances here are as much a part of the attraction of this exceptionally fine-sounding disc as are La Rocca’s works themselves. This recording and that of Nickel’s Requiem both show clearly the ways in which old words, old notions and old sentiments can be effectively brought into our contemporary world, just as Mendelssohn found a highly convincing manner of bringing “old Bach” into a later time period whose values differed from those of the composer himself.

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