- The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, Grete Pedersen, Ensemble Allegria: “Bent Sørensen: ‘St Matthew Passion’” (BIS)
- Lydia Teuscher, Slovenian Philharmonic Choir, Munich Radio Orchestra, Ivan Repušić, et. al.: “Damian Močnik: ‘Johannes Passion’” (BR Klassik)
- Berit Norbakken, Århus Sinfonietta, Schola Cantorum Reykjavicensis, Hörður Áskelsson: “Hugi Gudmundsson: ‘The Gospel of Mary’”
“When you reach a certain age, you become aware, as a composer, that you will not be able to compose it all, that there is a limit,” writes Bent Sørensen. In 2014, at the relatively spry age of 56, Sørensen decided that the one work he wanted to compose beyond anything else was a St. Matthew Passion. Without telling anyone who could possibly commission such a work, he decided that “everything I was going to compose from then on was going to lead me to a St. Matthew Passion.”
This is not unlike the fated inevitability of the Passion plots themselves. The name itself functions as a spoiler alert: Someone, most likely Christ, is going to suffer. Even if you’ve never attended a mass during Holy Week, if you’ve seen “Jesus Christ Superstar” (as Shostakovich apparently did—twice), you know how things go. Yet, in the same way that not every work he wrote between 2014 and 2020 ended up leading to his “St. Matthew Passion,” Sørensen’s Passion itself doesn’t stick to a straight path. He describes his journey towards the Cross as a bit wayward, moving “in and out of the mist” and “looking to the sides.” Even the work’s performance history veers off course: Originally slated to premiere in March 2020, it was first heard a year later, streamed without an audience in March 2021. Its first “proper” public performance came in March 2022. This is oddly fitting, as time in Sørensen’s music rarely moves in a linear manner. His musical texture is pointillistic, calling to mind Paul Signac’s endorsement of the painting technique: “the separated elements will be reconstituted into brilliantly colored lights.”
Sørensen’s closely-quartered intervals and polyphonic sprees form a similarly gleaming, shimmering whole that emerges from the mists of his music. It’s the byproduct of being musically peripatetic: At first blush the opening movement, “In veils of mist,” sounds like the mysterious distant calls of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” prelude. By the time the chorus enters, however, we’ve veered into the vocal music of Schoenberg, somewhere between “Friede auf Erden” and “Erwartung.” A few movements later, in “Crucifixus,” I swear I can hear choral moments from the Coronation Scene in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” There’s even a deliberate reference to Bach’s own “St. Matthew Passion” in the following “Lament,” with a familiar melody undergirding Sørensen’s own setting of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Likewise, and at times more striking than the music itself, Sørensen’s libretto (curated by Jakob Holtze) meanders, taking a roundabout way of the cross in favor of the plotted via crucis. What, for instance, is Emily Dickinson’s breathlessly erotic “Wild nights—Wild nights!” doing in the libretto? (Cut to Sørensen pointing out the lines: “Done with the Compass— / done with the Chart!”) The reference pays off in “Tenebrae,” which at roughly four-and-a-half minutes features excerpts from the Book of Matthew, Dickinson, and Anna Akhmatova. (Movements like “Into the Mist” trade off sources at an even faster clip, line-by-line.) The results are seamless, with references floating in and out like free association, creating the texture of the Passion, rather than the narrative. Matthew’s “From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land” triggers a Proustian memory of “Wild nights—Wild Nights!” and the following line, “Were I with the / Wild nights should be Our luxury” pinpoints the longing found in the lauds of the last three days of Holy Week. Akhmatova, via her poem “Reed,” adds to the discourse: “Wild honey smells like freedom. Dust—like a ray of sun…but we have learned once and for all that blood smells only of blood.” This prompts a closing line from Matthew’s last supper: “This is my blood.”
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I’m fairly certain that John did not have Akhmatova or Dickinson in mind when he opened his Gospel by writing: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Actually, since John was writing in Ancient Greek, he actually wrote “In the beginning was Logos,” a unifying, rational wisdom. Not exactly the case with words, which are often irrational, divisive, and misty in their multiple meanings and interpretations. In this way, translating the first line of John into English becomes a self-unfulfilling prophecy, one that isn’t sidestepped by using the Latin: “In principio erat verbum, et verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat verbum.”
But the text we have is the text we have, and Damijan Močnik is nothing if not decisive with his 2011 setting of the St. John Passion. He gives this first line to Lydia Teuscher, whose strident soprano ascends the silky staircase of Močnik’s music unaccompanied, a gleaming voice in the wilderness. A blast of shofar-ish brass responds, followed by crisp, booming percussion. The mists are cleared, and the story is more straightforward, leaving space for greater contrast and dramatic scope in the choral lines. Time here moves with the assurance of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov; there is no direction but forward.
Močnik works in trinities: His opening movement isolates the three clauses of John’s opening sentence: In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God. The Word was God. Peter denies Jesus three times, three denials that are set here with faltering vocal lines that stand out against the declamatory style of the other players. In the liner notes for the Slovenian Philharmonic Choir and Munich Radio Orchestra’s new recording of the work, Alexander Heinzel also points to a key trio of statements from Jesus in this movement: “I am the bread of life,” “I am the good shepherd,” and “I am the resurrection and the life.” Močnik tells Heinzel that these rules of three aren’t incidental; his aim is to “create a triangle between composer, performer, and listener.”
Listening to this “Johannes-Passion,” I’m again reminded of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Sub in a glockenspiel for an electric guitar, and the score has the same mix of the cinematic and operatic (apparently Shostakovich, so taken with the work, told Julian Lloyd Webber—Andrew’s brother—that he would have written the story exactly the same way were he not beholden to Soviet doctrine). It’s catchy and bright, at times psychedelic, with an ending as tonally mysterious as Webber’s own quiet finale to his 1971 opus. Here, as the choir disperses with the commandment to love one another, Teuscher sets the last word—“Amor in aeternum”—with the same vocal line as the opening “In principio.” In the end is the beginning. Listening to this on recording, I could only think of how an enterprising director might stage it.
Last year, in a roundup of new recordings of Bach’s “Matthew” and “John” Passions (along with Handel’s “La Resurrezione”) for this column, I opened with a favorite story from the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, in which Jesus tells his disciples that “the child of true Humanity exists within you.” This doesn’t sit well with his disciples, except for Mary, who echoes that she’d heard something similar in an earlier vision (“For where the mind is, there is the treasure”). If Jesus saying something controversial to his disciples was bad enough, having a woman confirm it goes over like a lead balloon: “Did he speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?” Peter demands in Hugi Guðmundsson’s “The Gospel of Mary.”
Guðmundsson works with a sparse libretto, more straightforward than Sørensen’s and less epic than Močnik’s. This is in part due to the limited texts we have for Mary of Magdala’s gospel, which Niels Brunse and Nila Parly use alongside excerpts from Saints Teresa of Ávila and Julian of Norwich, as well as lines quoted from the Gospel of Mark and (non-canonical) Gospel of Philip. The full libretto for the evening-length work is just about 2,100 words and takes up less than four full pages in the album booklet (by comparison, VAN contributor Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s liner notes are nearly twice as long). But no word is superfluous, each serving as a necessary step forward to both tell the story and situate the sidelining of Mary of Magdala in the historical throughline of patriarchy.
Such a specificity of language yields rich moments: Before reducing Mary to tears in insinuating that she is lying about her visions, Peter tells her that Jesus loved her “more than all other women.” When, as Mary weeps, Levi comes to her defense, he tells Peter: “If the Savior made her worthy, Who are you to reject her? He knew her completely and loved her more than us.” Us. Not just all other women, but everyone—including the male apostles. That’s about as close to a “fuck you” as you’re going to get in the Gospels, and Guðmundsson annotates that “us” with a choral high note, muted percussion, and bird-like flutter of woodwinds.
“The traditional Church’s development into a rigid, dogmatic and completely male-dominated organization is well known,” Guðmundsson says of his decision to set Mary of Magdala. “Less well known is how female influence has been delimited and repressed. It is clear from the New Testament texts that women were in the circle around Jesus—but over the centuries their significance has been downplayed and downgraded.” His score, at times evoking a pared-down, less overwhelming version of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” recircles and recenters women—or at least one key woman—in this narrative. The work’s “Postludium” comes soon after Levi’s defense of Mary, which is where the fragments of her Gospel also leave off, with the chorus and Mary (soprano Berit Norbakken) echoing the key message of her text: “Acquire my peace within yourselves.” But Brunse and Parly, much like Močnik’s Saint John libretto, also revisit the opening lines in the final moments: “Mary Magdalene was called His companion.” Here it is less an end-beginning as it is a reiteration and continuation. It points the mind to the treasure. ¶
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