Three New Choral Passions

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

Steinberg: Passion Week

There once were two young Russian composers, Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) and Maximilian Steinberg ((1883–1946). They both studied in St. Petersburg with Rimsky-Korsakov, although Steinberg was the one actually enrolled at the conservatory. Rimsky treated them both like family, although Steinberg was the one he took to Paris for Diaghilev’s Saison Russe. And Steinberg was the one who married Rimsky’s daughter. Why, then, is Stravinsky the one we’ve heard of?

Because Stravinsky left for the West: first Paris, then America, ending up in L. A. He helped invent modernism, wrote music like The Rite of Spring (Paris) and The Rake’s Progress (Venice, New York), and never—well, hardly ever—looked back.

Steinberg remained in Russia and continued Rimsky’s romantic-nationalist vein. Even within that vein, his Passion Week (1920–23) is an outlier. It’s not a tone poem on folk themes or an opera based on national history. It’s a lengthy a cappella choral work. Most of its movements draw on traditional chants sung in the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s the only such work Steinberg ever wrote, although precedents existed: Gretchaninov’s Passion Week (1912) and Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (1915). Steinberg would have been familiar with both.

His timing, however, proved to be spectacularly bad: With the Bolshevik Revolution going on, repression against the church had already begun. Soon all performances of sacred music were banned throughout Russia. Undaunted, Steinberg journeyed abroad in an attempt to get Passion Week performed. He got it published, but no record exists of any European performances. A copy of the score was left with Steinberg’s student Dmitri Shostakovich, who in 1957 passed it along to Russo-American conductor Igor Buketoff, who began looking for a choir that could do it justice. He never found one.

Years later Buketoff’s daughter and niece brought the music to conductors Steven Fox and Alexander Lingas. An American publisher brought out a new edition; Fox’s Clarion Choir and Lingas’s Cappella Romana performed it. CR’s recording came out last year; now Fox’s performance has been issued on a new Naxos disc (8.573665). Passion Week is finally getting the attention it deserves. Here is an excerpt:

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The noble Joseph,
when he had taken down Thy most pure body
from the tree, wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and,
having anointed it with spices, placed it in a new tomb.

All the texts, in Church Slavonic, are drawn from Holy Week services preceding Easter. Each calls to mind a specific scriptural event or liturgical occasion from Holy Week; together they form a series of meditative responses to Christ’s suffering, death, and imminent resurrection—the Passion.

Preceding five of Steinberg’s choral settings, the singers present the original Kievan or Znamenny chants for the same texts. These not only provide a welcome change of texture, they also allow us to hear how Steinberg integrates chant into his settings. As you heard, Steinberg enlivens his polyphony through counterpoint and divisi scoring in up to 12 parts; his harmonic palette also tends to be more adventurous than that of his predecessors.

The Clarion Choir, 33 young New York professionals, sing musically, powerfully, and with convincing style. The recording, done in a cathedral sanctuary, is robust, vibrant, and transparent.

Johnson: Considering Matthew Shepard

Craig Hella Johnson’s Considering Matthew Shepard (Harmonia Mundi HMU 807638.39; SACD) is also a passion setting. In its greater length and stunning array of choruses, hymns, crowd scenes, individual meditations, and “recitations,” it invites comparison to the monumental Passion oratorios that Bach created for Leipzig.

The difference is that Johnson created this work to mourn and commemorate the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old university student savagely beaten by two men outside Laramie, Wyoming on October 7, 1998. He died in a Colorado hospital five days later. In the aftermath of these events, as the Shepard Foundation’s Jason Marsden writes in an introductory note, “All of us who knew him, and millions who did not, joined in grief and outrage and demanded the world change.” This vicious crime helped spawn a new generation of LGBTQ activists and an outpouring of artistic work, perhaps the best known of which are The Laramie Project plays. To those works we can now add Johnson’s Considering.

Craig Hella Johnson, hitherto known mainly as the gifted conductor of Austin-based professional choir Conspirare, emerges here as a major creative talent. Given what he has achieved, it’s possible that from now on he’ll be “that gifted composer from Austin.”

The work’s three sections run nearly two hours in performance. That’s fitting; attention must be paid. The wonder is that Johnson and his collaborators, poet Michael Dennis Browne and author Lesléa Newman, not only keep their narrative afloat, they sustain a long, variegated story arc with no dead spots. While touching on several American hot-button issues, their gentle, unforced approach allows listeners to keep breathing as they grapple with the story and its implications. Undoubtedly some people will find Considering’s approach too timid, too NPR, too Minnesota-nice (Browne was Stephen Paulus’s librettist for thirty years) to do justice to its subject matter.

But there’s something to be said for an approach that reaches out, preaches beyond the choir. Consider the music: blues, C&W, a bit of black-gospel-lite, some Arvo-Pärt-like tintinnabuli, Hildegardian chant, and—at telling moments—both hate-spewing turba and tender cowboy yodeling. (The text repeatedly invokes the stark beauty of the Wyoming countryside, which slightly surprised me.) This creative team doesn’t entirely avoid the sentimental or derivative, but then they are pitching this piece to a wide swath of ordinary folks. With its mixed choir and eight-person instrumental backing, it can also be performed by ordinary folks. I hope that happens.

As performed by Conspirare, Considering is unfailingly musical and occasionally heartbreaking. HM’s hi-res sound is good, although I wish they had done more to open out space in the multichannel mix, and (especially) to create a distinctive ambience for the spoken “recitations.” It need not have been so faithful to the concert-hall experience. Both music and subject call out for a bigger soundscape.

Fairouz: Zabur

One other passion setting deserves your attention. That is Zabur, an all-stops-pulled-out oratorio by Mohammed Fairouz. Barely 30 years old, Fairouz is already a prolific, visible, and oft-recorded composer. An Arab-American, he willingly tackles difficult issues including religious conflict, international terrorism, and the Middle Eastern refugee crisis. His workmanship is usually superb; Fairouz is already a master of the craft of Western composition. Nevertheless, by choosing ambitious subjects and treating them in conventional ways, he may be confirming the limitations of youth. There’s little in Zabur that would have troubled Mendelssohn. Fairouz’s neo-romantic style, with its tasteful orientalist touches, carefully calculated climaxes, and lyrical relief passages, apparently sets the hearts of major donors and commissioning agencies aflutter: “It was the vision of this body to realize a work for chorus and orchestra that speaks not to our differences and what tears us apart, but of our shared values and [what] unite[s] us as humankind.” It seems wrong to question such aims, and that is partly what troubles me about them.

Sung in a mixture of Arabic and English, Zabur (Naxos 8.559744) depicts a group of people huddling in a shelter under artillery fire who ultimately meet a violent end (performed twice for maximum effect). To learn more, you may want to consult the composer’s essay. The libretto, by Najla Saïd, posits a source of inspiration and catharsis—the artwork of children—not unknown to students of the Holocaust. Like that of Fairouz, Saïd’s work is earnest and well-crafted. Whether Zabur will contribute to greater understanding and compassion remains open to question. But we don’t ask such questions about the Verdi Requiem. Should we ask them here?

The recording is sourced from a recent live performance in Indianapolis.

An excerpt:

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