Symphonies reflect season's emotion


Musically, the Easter season is synonymous with the greatest masterworks of the choral repertoire. Themes of death and resurrection pervade the quasi- operatic Passions of J. S. Bach, the requiems by composers such as Giuseppe Verdi, and the great concert Masses that bring the Christian liturgy alive with such extraordinary flair.

Add to these the Old Testament oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn, which provide thrilling takes on the events leading to the Exodus story of Passover, and you can see why this time of year is so chorally charged.

Many great works of music can bring the unique joys of this season alive. Here are some of them.

Johann Sebastian Bach: "The Passion According to St. John" and "The Passion According to St. Matthew"

The story of Jesus Christ becomes the greatest ever sung in these dramatic accounts of his last days, set to music by a master.

The two dramas are as different as night and day. "St. Matthew" is one of music's greatest devotional statements: Meditative arias and choral passages are bathed in the heartfelt radiance of the apostle Matthew's account.

"St. John," by contrast, is darkly dramatic. Taunting crowds, the agony of betrayal and the excruciating pain of death are punctuated by arias of intense introspection and deeply felt chorales.

A terrific "St. Matthew" emanates from an unexpected source because Sir Georg Solti was feted primarily for his command of Wagner, Strauss and the splashy masterworks of the late 19th century. But this is the real thing.

For "Johannespassion," head straight for the BIS label and the version recorded last year by Japan's reigning period-performance guru, Masaaki Suzuki. Using the superbly trained singers of his Bach Collegium Japan, Suzuki gives us a bristling traversal of this wondrous score. Interludes such as "Kreuzige ihn" (Crucify him) prove downright terrifying as they leap out of the speakers in state-of-the-art sound.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B minor

Describing this sprawling set- ting of the Mass composed in 1733 quickly becomes an exercise in cliches, and all the usual adjectives fall short.

Bach was out to stretch the musical form of the Mass in an attempt to create something spectacular. Succeed he did, and on the grandest possible scale.

The Kyrie and Gloria movements by themselves last longer than many complete Masses. In interludes such as the exultant Gloria, the unshakeably solid Credo and the churning, spiritually rapt Kyrie, it seems Bach was able to wring out every ounce of divine aspiration the liturgy has to offer.

A fine new B-minor Mass comes from Martin Pearlman and his Boston Baroque on Telarc. It's rhythmically alive, filled with emotional empathy and gorgeously sung. I'm especially fond of soprano Nicole Heaston, who sang with such lustrous elan at the Baltimore Symphony's "Messiah" concerts in December. She's terrific here as well.

Other favorite performances accounts include two by Robert Shaw (RCA and Telarc), plus Sir Neville Marriner's on Philips.

Verdi: Requiem

This is the most operatic treatment the Roman Catholic liturgy for the dead has received. The timpani thwacks in the "Dies Irae" section alone are worth the price of the recording.

The most commanding Verdi Requiem of them all came from EMI's London studio nearly 40 years ago with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini presiding. No one else has approached it.

George Frederick Handel: "Israel in Egypt"

The most splendid of Handel's Old Testament oratorios is this incredible musical account of the Exodus from Egypt. The 10 plagues and Israel's ultimate deliverance from bondage are recounted in the baroque vividness for which Handel was famous. Two early-music specialists are especially good here: John Eliot Gardiner on Erato and Andrew Parrott on EMI.

Felix Mendelssohn: Elijah

Mendelssohn's potboiler oratorio, which fast-forwards through the life of the great Old Testament prophet (and spiritual visitor to every Passover Seder), remains a beloved choral work more than 150 years after its premiere in Birmingham, England.

The prophet tells off kings, humiliates pagan gods, raises children from the dead, and resigns himself anew to God's will in a succession of broad, stately choruses and dramatic solo arias.

Fine performances in English come from Robert Shaw (Telarc) and Sir Neville Marriner (Philips). Mendelssohn first composed "Elijah" in German, but you're on your own with those recorded versions.

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection"

The triumph of eternal life over death is at the very core of this five-movement extravaganza.

The death motif is ushered in by a powerful funeral march in the first movement where, in Mahler's words, "we stand by the coffin of a person well loved."

Movement II evokes "a memory, a ray of sunlight, pure and cloudless out of the departed life," while the third enters the realm of anguished distortion.

The "Uhrlicht" (Primal Light) movement sung by an alto is one of music's most sublime, mystically intense interludes. "I am from God and will return from God," the voice intones.

The work climaxes in the final movement, where, after a powerful orchestral buildup, the chorus enters with the magical, hushed "Auferstehn": "Rise again, thou shalt rise again, my dust, after short rest."

Leonard Bernstein was synonymous with Mahler and the earlier of his two "Resurrections" has been re-released on Sony's Bernstein Century Series. It has to be heard to be believed.

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