Classical artists offer uplifting Easter works

Praise: Great recordings for the holiday include the "St. John Passion" of conductor Masaaki Suzuki and a collection from England.

April 01, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The "St. John Passion" of Johann Sebastian Bach is on my mind these days, not just because of the generally unsatisfactory account of it given recently by the Annapolis Chorale, but because of an extraordinary new recording just released to coincide with the Easter season.

Bach's musical setting of the Gospel of John is captured in all its gritty, dramatic splendor by Japan's premier baroque specialist, Masaaki Suzuki, who presides over a remarkable "Johannespassion" on Scandinavia's BIS label.

Employing the suberbly trained singers of his Bach Collegium Japan, plus a mixture of German and Japanese soloists, Suzuki gives us a supremely dramatic traversal of this wondrous score.

Heading the cast is the young German tenor, Gerd Turk, whose sweet voice is put to great use in the all-important narrative role of the Evangelist.

The great encounters between Jesus and his accusers and Christ's subsequent suffering and death on the cross are set up with consummate dramatic flair by Turk.

Suzuki gives his soloists marvelous support, underpinning the words of Jesus, the Evangelist, Pontius Pilate and the Apostle Peter with a dazzling assortment of ruffles and flourishes on the harpsichord.

The Japanese choir is thrilling, both in the solemn meditative chorales that dot the work, and at exciting intervals like the shouts of "Kreuzige ihn!" ("Crucify him!")

Alas, Chiyuki Urano, the Japanese bass who sings the role of Jesus sounds like he has come down with an advanced case of lockjaw. Still, this double-CD set is an extraordinary rendering of the Passion of Christ.

We think of Handel's "Messiah" as Christmas music, but let's remember that most of the work deals with the themes of death and resurrection, which make it Easter fare.

This year, I'm paying particular attention to the "Messiah" recorded in 1984 by Robert Shaw, America's greatest choral conductor, who died in January at the age of 82.

Never a glamour boy, Shaw got his results by breaking music down to its essence, then building it up again from scratch. So there's nothing showy about his "Messiah," which features superior soloists, the Atlanta Symphony and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, which Shaw single-handedly turned into the finest symphonic choir in the country.

This is a meticulous, judiciously paced "Messiah" on the Telarc label that gives us the conductor at work on a score he revered throughout his life. There may be more exciting `Messiahs" on the shelf, but none has more musical substance.

For additional spiritual tingles this season, I suggest the 2-for-1 bargain 25th anniversary collection from England's Tallis Scholars, on the Gimell label.

From the solo soprano wafting in from the ether in Gregorio Allegri's otherworldly "Miserere," to a lusciously compelling account of William Byrd's "Mass for 5 Voices," you won't go wrong with this anthology that's both wholly stunning and stunningly holy.

Happy Easter and happy listening.

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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