Penderecki’s “Passion”

Penderecki Passion According to St. Luke

This evening I have been listening to a recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion, composed in 1966 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Christianity into Poland, and for the 700th anniversary of Münster Cathedral, where it was first performed. Penderecki has been a leading light of the European musical avant garde since the early 1960s. His Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima was a landmark (and has been used as source material for any number of movie soundtracks.)

The Passion is for three mixed choirs, boychoir, soprano, baritone and bass soloists, spoken narrator, and very large orchestra. It is a daunting work combining twelve-tone writing with vocal lines based on Gregorian chant, aleatoric passages as well as huge climaxes that end on shockingly diatonic major chords. The form is similar to the Bach passions: large choruses interspersed with narration and arias that comment on the action in Luke’s gospel. Other contemplative texts are taken from the psalms, Roman Catholic antiphons and hymns, sequences (Miserere mei Deus; Pange lingua; Stabat Mater, etc.)

The drama of the choruses is astonishing. Who could not be shocked by the screams of “Crucifige ilum.” (Crucify him)? Later there is an a capella setting of the “Stabat mater” describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the foot of the cross. The final chorus proclaims, “In Te, Domine, speravi, non confundar in aeternum.” (In Thee, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be ashamed.)

Penderecki’s Passion is a masterpiece that should be performed more often. Too bad it’s so expensive to produce and no one (but me) wants to hear it….

(And of course, I’ve been listening to Penderecki while procrastinating practice the organ continuo part for the Bach Passion I have to play on Friday evening.)

Tomás Luis de Victoria: The Tallis Scholars’s celebration of 400 years

The Victoria Collection

As its contribution to the 400th anniversary of the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria’s birth (1548-1611), The Tallis Scholars are making available a compilation at a bargain price of three of the Scholars’ discs of music by Victoria. This collection includes Victoria’s three most important works, the Requiem, the Lamentations and the Tenebrae Responsories. The recordings are on the Scholars’ own Gimell label. Through the Gimell site you can get it either as a specially-priced 3-CD set or as a download in either mp3 or (for $1 more) uncompressed FLAC files.

As usual with the Tallis Scholars, the performances are intense, with perfect blend and impeccable musicianship, and the sound of the recordings (I’ve been listening to the FLAC versions converted to AIFF format.) is clear and full. Listening to these great works, by these great performers, is almost a religious experience in itself. I highly recommend this music and especially these performances.

Rachmaninov’s “Vespers” by the Estonians

Tonight I’ve been listening to the amazing recording of Rachmaninov’s “All Night Vigil” (commonly known as his “Vespers”) by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Hillier.  It has that “Russian sound,” with the very deep basses and a peculiar (but not unpleasant) chorus sound often found in slavic groups.  Rachmaninov’s choral work is completely unaccompanied and requires a double chorus divided into many parts.  It is not a piece for a small choir or one that is not secure in its pitch.  The virtuoso Estonian choir has performed music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis, among many other composers.  They are one of the world’s great choruses; nothing seems too hard for them.

The Rachmaninov “Vespers” has, of course, been recorded by many fine conductors and choruses, including Robert Shaw and his Festival Singers (Telarc), and a very unusual sounding but arresting recording by the men and boy choir from King’s College, Cambridge, with Stephen Cleobury.  (I once read an interview with Cleobury that he chose the Vespers because that particular year he had a good crop of low basses in the King’s choir.) There are many more, but these are three of my favorites.  If you don’t know this music, I recommend it.

King’s College Choir’s latest album: A Year at King’s

The venerable Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, has recently put out a new album of a capella works that give a tour through the liturgical year that is the life blood of the King’s College Chapel.  They may be known internationally for their tours and dozens of recordings, but week in and week out in the chapel they sing evensong most days of the school term, as well as services on Sunday mornings.  The amount of repertoire that they cover in a year is phenomenal.  (Think of it: choral responses, a sung Psalm, a choral setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, and an anthem for each evensong service.)

Stephen Cleobury, the college’s director of music since the early 1980s, has put together an interesting program of old and new: two of Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” antiphons; a new setting of the familiar Christmas Carol “Away In A Manger” by Sir John Tavener.  (As it happens, I was present in Cambridge for the first performance of the piece at the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s on Christmas Eve 2005, so I have a personal nostalgia for it.  It’s too bad that I don’t think it’s that great a piece.)  There are also new performances of old favorites: the Allegri Miserere and Thomas Tallis’s 40-voice motet Spem In Alium Nunquam Habui

The sound of the choir is not as perfect in blend as I have heard them in the past; however, this album in enjoyable and it is a nice souvenir of the music that one would hear in the mighty gothic chapel in Cambridge.

EACC Choir gets a review at Jubilation

This is rather old news now, but the choir from Euclid Avenue Congregational Church received a complimentary mention in after our appearance at the WCLV Jubilation Choir Festival at St. John Cathedral in Cleveland in May.

The free will offering taken on Friday night was also given to the music program at the church. The audience was generous, with donations totaling over $1400, which will be used as seed money to purchase new choir robes for both our Chancel and Gospel choirs. St. Joseph Church in Avon Lake, one of the competitors in the festival, also donated their $500 prize to EACC, which will go for the same purpose.

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of people to EACC.