Easter is come. Over centuries, the passiontide has inspired countless musical works, resulting in a repertoire of dazzling variety. However, our core playlist for the Easter festivities is relatively short, with the two Bach 1720s mastepieces, St Matthew Passion and St John Passion reigning in the concert hall and on records.
While there is no need (and indeed no case nor point) to question the sanctity of the necessity of J. S. Bachin our lives, I have, with our without your permission, put together a little ”Bach and Beyond” -themed playlist, featuring some of my favourite listening for the Easter holidays. As we are still very much into lockdowns, I’ve chosen to include only recorded works, since not many of us will be able to attend any live performances, save some intriguing streamed ones, like the forthcoming online presentation of St John Passion by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi team on DG Stage on Good Friday.
Speaking of St John, next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini norsti Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (1982) for soloist, mixed choir, instrumental quartet and organ. A timeless classic, Pärt’s sublime, seventy-minute setting is one of the most intensely meditative takes on the passion story in the repertoire.
Rooted in an elaborate fusion of the musical elements and the text, discussed in detail by Paul Hillier in his wonderful book on the composer, the Passio is Pärt’s most extended and refined composition in his ground-breaking tintinnabuli style. A compelling aural ritual, the 1988 ECM premiere recording by the Hilliard Ensemble et al. remains unsurpassed in its focused performance and spacious engineering.
Eighteen years after Pärt, Osvaldo Golijov provided us with his passiontide masterpiece, La Pasión según San Marcos(2000). Worlds apart from Pärt’s conception, Golijov’s Pasión is a dazzling fusion of traditions, from Europe to Latin America as well as from high art to vigorous vernacular, yielding to a fabulously organic whole, somewhat in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass (1971).
Conceived for staged performances, the score calls for eight soloists, a chorus of fifty-or-so singers, a large array of percussion, guitar, piano, accordion, four brass and a string ensemble. In 2010, Deutsche Grammophon issued a three-disc release of La Pasión, featuring both a complete studio recording on two CDs and a 2008 live performance on DVD. Combining the best of both worlds, the double feature album is a treasured item.
John Adams’s passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012) appears on my list as a triple feature, for it is served on record in three guises, on two albums. The terrific premiere recording, based on performances conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, was released in 2014 by DG. Three years later, as a part of their six-disc John Adams Edition, the Berliner Philharmoniker released both audio and video recordings of The Gospel, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Based on a libretto compiled by Peter Sellars, Adams’s two-act score juxtaposes two passion narratives, the Biblical account and a contemporary timeline, giving rise to a powerful musical dramaturgy. Scored for an orchestra with large percussion section, electric bass and cimbalom, a chorus, three soloists and an Evangelist trio of countertenors, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a fabulous piece, tremendously well served by its LA and Berlin recordings, respectively.
Not all passions are Biblical. Kaija Saariaho’s oratorio La passion de Simone (2006) focuses on the asceticism and passionate quest for truth of Simone Weil. Fashioned after the Stations of the Cross, Amin Maalouf’s libretto is clad in grippingly intense guise by Saariaho. Scored for solo soprano, choir and orchestra, with electronics, La passion de Simone is a profoundly original and deeply moving work.
Recorded for Ondine by Dawn Upshaw, the Tapiola Choir, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the two-disc set, released in 2013, is an intense affair.
”Intense” is also the single word I would use to describe the March 2020 recording of Bach’s St John Passion by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan on BIS. Derived from sessions at the Kölner Philharmonie just before the first complete Covid-19 lockdown was issued, the performance bears unique focus and intensiveness, as Suzuki and his team, cutting short their thirtieth anniversary tour, turn their creative energy to produce a measured, deeply felt document at the face of the unknown.
Recorded just some weeks earlier by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Ludwig van Beethoven’s oratorio Christus am Ölberge was one of the highlights of the composer’s 250th anniversary year, cut short by the pandemic.
Both intimately personal and immensely universal, Beethoven’s take on Christ’s dark night of the soul is an unduly neglected piece. Rooted in simple, straightforward dramaturgy, Christus am Ölberge dispenses with strict Biblical theology, focusing instead on the humanity of Christ’s suffering. Clad in contemplative solo numbers and vivid choruses, the oratorio is, in fact, a wonderful piece.
Performed with enthusiastic dedication by Rattle and his London team, the LSO Live recording, released last fall, is a resounding testimony of the power of vocal, choral and orchestral sonorities, much missed under these strange times.
With these wonderful recordings in mind, despite of all the hardship we all must still face before we are back to some form of normal life, I would like to wish you all a meaningful Easter.
© Jari Kallio