Bach: ‘St. John Passion’
Nick Pritchard, tenor; Guillaume Thomas, bass; Monteverdi Choir; English baroque soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)
John Eliot Gardiner has been recording the “St. John Passion” for so long that the countertenor on his first recording of the work, Michael Chance, has been replaced on this new version — Gardiner’s third — by Chance’s son , Alexander. Despite the glimpse of familiarity, Gardiner’s vision of this Passion, the one that best suits his operatic flair for drama, has been refined in the 35 years since its first take. From the stabbing bassline of the opening chorus to the soaring final chorale, there’s unflinching frankness in this latest tale, which was recorded live in Oxford, England, on Good Friday last year. .
Not for Gardiner the pietistically devotional approach that can stun. His “John” is now a parable about the ferocity of the mob – a parable he links in promotional material to what were, at the time of recording, “recent events in Washington” – and it is a a parable that he tells with the pitiless and disturbing violence that his formidable mastery of his forces allows. While the vocal soloists aren’t quite the stars Gardiner assembled for his 1986 and 2003 retellings, they serve the granularity of the performance perfectly; so does the wickedly jagged edge of some of the instrumental stops. It’s not pleasant, but neither is the story – and the moments of seraphic beauty become all the more redeeming. DAVID ALLEN
Bozzini Quartet (Lady)
As a pioneering critic of the Village Voice in the 1970s, Tom Johnson was an eyewitness to minimalism in all its primitive variety. The lessons of this immersion have always shown through in his own compositions. But while his music may invite comparison with the likes of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Johnson has his own gift for making you feel every shift in a field of patterns as it happens. And he has a good sense of humor too – as in tracks like “Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for Solo String Bass”.
The quiet clarity of his mathematically rigorous approach has also endeared him in later years to the Wandelweiser school of composers and performers. A new album dedicated to his work, interpreted by the Bozzini Quartet, shows this more dreamy side of Johnson, as in the fifth and last movement of “Combinations for String Quartet”. Unlike earlier sections of this work, the finale manages to balance didactic clarity with transporting grace. This balance is heard throughout the recording – especially in a piece of his “Tilework” series and in the beautiful “Four-note Four-Voice Chords”. SETH COLTER WALLS
Marco Blaauw, trumpet; Florentin Ginot, double bass; Benjamin Kobler and Ulrich Löffler, keyboards (Ensemble Musikfabrik)
Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag can deliberate over a piece for decades – as with his long-gestating operatic adaptation of Beckett’s “Endgame.” But that slow, piecemeal caution often results in a solid end product. This is again the case with “Rückblick” (“Look Back”), a collection of short works from Kurtag’s body of work — arranged in nine movements on this new recording.
The hour-long piece is subtitled “Old and New for Four Instruments – Tribute to Stockhausen”. And, yes, the arched trumpet of the first movement recalls the music for this instrument that Stockhausen inserted in his first opera “Donnerstag aus Licht”. But as is often the case with Kurtag’s dedicatory works, he’s able to tip his hat to another composer while still sounding like himself. Throughout the piece he is more consistently ironic than Stockhausen, even when pushing to extremes of timbre.
After a dark introduction, the short second movement ends in a relative rush, with strangely strutted passages for double bass, harpsichord, harmonium and trumpet. In the hands of the musicians of Ensemble Musikfabrik — Marco Blaauw, Florentin Ginot, Benjamin Kobler and Ulrich Löffler — every twist is delightful, albeit muted. And the sixth movement functions as a highlight of Kurtag’s career, as it incorporates the two themes heard earlier in “Rückblick” as well as deep pieces from his catalog, such as “Les Adieux dans Janaceks Manier”. This all serves as a great introduction to Kurtag’s miniature art. SETH COLTER WALLS
Oslo Philharmonic; Klaus Makela, conductor (Decca)
If you haven’t heard the name Klaus Makela yet, you will surely hear it soon: the last jewel on the podium is already the conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and the music director of the Orchestra of Paris, and it occurs in Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco in April.
He is 26 years old.
Peruse the skillfully produced clips that are available of him leading Oslo’s communicative ensemble, and you’ll find a conductor with plenty of ideas and the talent to realize at least some of them. Purcell intelligently prefaces his Haydn, and Dowland his Schumann, and if his Brahms Fourth is wrong, his Beethoven Ninth is refreshingly simple.
This Sibelius set has its ups and downs too, though it’s played sensationally throughout. It’s not Osmo Vanska’s tense, icy Sibelius, or quite the great Sibelius of yore. Makela has a broad imagination for sound, but he applies such lavish flattery to detail with it that the results can be a bit too impulsive, though never wasted. The Seventh Symphony and “Tapiola” sag, and the First needs more sparkle. But the second is impressive and the fourth is inspired – an excellent account of hard work that suggests Makela is worth watching. DAVID ALLEN
Soper: “The understanding of all things”
Kate Soper, voice and piano; Sam Pluta, live electronics (New Focus Recordings)
“It probably isn’t very logical or effective to use music to investigate the true nature of being and the human condition,” writes Kate Soper in the liner notes of her loftily titled new album. “But it sure is fun to try.”
As a composer and performer, Soper has made it an art of having fun and questioning the impossible. His masterful “Ipsa Dixit” began with the question “What is art?” And in this new recording, of works and improvisations that span years but gain the cohesion of a cyclical suite, she seems to be asking “What is reality?
Soper has some reflections in essayistic texts performed in the high spoken style of Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson. Kafka’s story from the title track is told in stunted fragments over the sound of a spinning top, arriving at “Once the smallest thing is truly known, all things are known”, a phrase made mysterious by having the intonation of a statement but syntax of a question.
The following works are no longer resolved: two recent improvisations with Sam Pluta on electronics, the first a text-laden journey from the lucid to the unruly, the second a wordless dialogue that could go on forever; and, later, “So Dawn Chromatically Descends the Day” (2018), an elaborate blend of declamation and art song.
At the center is “The Fragments of Parmenides” (2018-19), a rhapsodic colloquium of disarming elegance: Yeats set in moving lyricism, interrupted by asides worthy of a cabaret; extended piano for tonal painting and grouped punctuation; provocative questions answered with more questions. The investigation is its own conclusion, she concludes. Why worry about day and night, life and death and love, if “all we see, hear, taste, touch and feel is nothing but experiential noise »?
Soper suggests: “Because it’s beautiful? Because that’s all we have? JOSHUA BARONE