• Sabine Devieilhe, Raphaël Pichon, Pygmalion: “Bach & Handel” (Erato)
  • Sean Friar, NOW Ensemble: “Before and After” (New Amsterdam)
  • Anthony Roth Costanzo, Justin Vivian Bond: “Only an Octave Apart” (Decca)

All easygoing years are alike; each exhausting year is exhausting in its own way. For 2022, I can place my breaking point at West Elm Caleb. It’s the sort of story I didn’t need to know—and one I have no real desire to recap here—but one that exemplifies the unique brand of noise that’s grown out of most people reconciling time spent increasingly, aggressively online and the slippery, concrete events of the offline world. There’s an algorithm-fuelled tempest in a teacup, parasocial relationships to actual human beings, a fever pitch of ubiquity no matter what website or app you’re on, and a series of psychotherapy metaphors so tortured that it should be prohibited by the Geneva Convention. 

To counteract this brand of exhaustion, many have recommended that we start building our resilience muscles. The New York Times recently touted, “The good news is both resilience and the ability to grow from adversity can be cultivated, whether during the best of times or in the middle of a crisis.” All we need is optimism and positive thinking. As I try this one bleak Tuesday morning, cleaning my dog’s diarrhea out of my rug, my mind turns instead to something John Eliot Gardiner wrote about Bach:

I see no need for us to stand Bach in a flattering light or to avert our eyes from possible movement in the shadows.… To do so is to underestimate the psychological toll that a lifetime, not so much of tireless application, as of bowing and scraping to his intellectual inferiors, could have had on his state of mind and well-being.

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There’s something kinetic and raw about Sabine Devieilhe’s new recording of Bach that fits in neatly alongside Gardiner’s unvarnished portrait of the composer. Opening with the liminal lament “Mein Jesu! was vor Seelenweh,” a rumination on the agonies borne by Christ in Gethsemane, Devieilhe gives us an antidote to algorithmic outrage. The music is thoughtful, her delivery full of kaleidoscopic rue. In some moments, it’s barely the echo of a whisper. In the following “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut,” Devieilhe takes on the mantle of a sinner whose heart “swims in blood” as she considers her errors in slow, plaintive steps. Under music director Raphaël Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion draws our attention to the movements in the shadows, allowing the fine shades and dimensions in Devieilhe’s glinting soprano to stand out in understated bas relief.

It would be enough to take this album as a Bach compilation, but Devieilhe pairs these works with a midsection of Handel’s sacred (“Brockes Passion”) and profane (“Giulio Cesare in Egitto”). In Cleopatra’s arias, Devieilhe’s voice becomes more electric, painting a similar portrait as Bach’s sinner, but in more heightened, neon colors. She interweaves Cleopatra’s devotion to Caesar with its Janus twin: the Faithful Soul’s unshakable foundation of in God in the “Brockes Passion.” In both instances, desire is presented as an excess of energy, but channeled with laser-like focus and alchemized from noise to sound.

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There’s a delicious friction that comes with listening to Sean Friar’s “Before and After” alongside Sabine Devieilhe’s “Bach & Handel.” On almost all counts, the works could not be further apart from one another—where Bach and Handel create straight lines with their music, Friar charts maps full of locations yet absent of any set route. But there’s a sense of holy rawness in both performances that, when played back-to-back, illuminates both. In Friar’s case, it’s the NOW Ensemble, of which he’s also a member. Inspired by the blurred lines between past and present that form modern-day Rome, the album-length work is a more literal exploration of the circuitousness of history, told with clear-eyed pragmatism. In describing the work, Friar questions the myths of growth, progress, nostalgia, and “the beginnings of civilization.” He also makes room in his music for “our feeling that, perhaps, humans have crossed some threshold we really shouldn’t have.” 

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Not that Friar offers up an idea of where that threshold is located, either in terms of time or space. Ultimately, that’s not the point. Friar is more interested in the slow burn of history, rendered through his meticulous ear for timing and pace. Take the shortest movement, “Artifact,” which clocks in at just over 90 seconds yet moves in slow, deliberate steps that begin with a drone of an electric guitar. Like a Polaroid as it develops, details emerge from the ether—a sustained clarinet line, a repeated, insistent piano chord—that lead into the next movement (“Rally”). “Before and After” ends with the ten-and-a-half-minute “Done Deal,” a spiral of dread and despair that at times feels like Baroque lamentation before slowly giving way to a pixellated agitation. It’s the existential void I want to crawl into like a hot bath on a cold night. 

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The title “Done Deal” in this context seems almost Faustian—the crossing of a threshold best left untouched. The problem with achieving ultimate knowledge, after all, is that it comes with (to borrow a phrase from Freddie Mercury and David Bowie) the terror of knowing what the world is about. Fitting, then, that a cover of “Under Pressure” closes out Anthony Roth Costanzo and Justin Vivian Bond’s new album, “Only an Octave Apart.” It’s the track that Costanzo, in an interview for VAN, said he was most concerned about performing with Bond, aware of the risks of “sounding like an opera singer trying to sound like a pop singer.” You can hear him say something similar in the opening of the track, amid vocalizations that sound less like an actual warmup of a countertenor and more like “Tintin” diva Bianca Castafiore.

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Costanzo ultimately dips into a rich tenor, closing the octave gap between himself and Bond, but it’s when this album embraces the full contrast between its two artists that it thrives. Who else would be able to link The Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” with the “Hymn to the Sun” from Philip Glass’s “Akhnaten”? And if that mashup is too easy—after all, Glass premiered “Akhnaten” in 1984, The Bangles recorded “Walk Like an Egyptian” two years later—then witness the even more seamless bridge connecting “When I Am Laid in Earth” from “Dido and Aeneas” to pop star Dido’s 2003 ballad, “White Flag.” If I can make it through the other 48 weeks of 2022 with an iota of energy left to spare at the finish line, it won’t be thanks to some consciously-cultivated resilience, positive thinking, or a combination of Fabergé yoni eggs and turmeric-LSD enemas. The giddy absurdism of Costanzo and Bond, however, will go a long way. ¶

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