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Music’s Spiritual Season

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Although the concert schedule this week is light, this is also a week when music, serious and important music, enters deeply into many people’s lives. Easter and Passover are upon us, as is the first flush of spring. We contemplate life, death and rebirth, and music--be it in church service or Seder--can be expected to lead the way.

But music can do even more, since the best religious art transcends specific doctrine or practice. The Catholic Church, above all, knows this, and it has an imposing history of great arts patronage. Popes and cardinals may not always have had easy working relationships with their artists (there are two fascinating operas, Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini” and Hans Pfitzner’s “Palestrina,” that lavishly dramatize just such struggles), but, in the end, we have such accomplishments as the sublime harmony of Giovanni Palestrina’s masses to stand as everlasting evidence of a profound mission.

The church has continued to make a musical difference in our own time. In 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow commissioned arguably one of the most magnificent spiritual statements in late-20th century music: Henryk Gorecki’s “Beatus Vir” for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, written just after the Polish composer’s famous Third Symphony. It premiered in 1979, on the occasion of John Paul II’s first return to Poland after becoming pope. John Paul called it “a profound experience” at the occasion, and it will be an indelible part of his legacy.

But future generations will have the paradox of contrasting Gorecki’s extraordinary work with John Paul’s latest foray into music--or rather the Vatican’s foray, since the pope doesn’t actually perform on his CD, “Abba Pater,” which Sony Classical has released in time for Holy Week. Samplings of His Holiness’ voice taken from his worldwide addresses over the years are spliced on top of a music track.

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Clearly, the Vatican doesn’t particularly care about this music, since one has to scan the credits in small type on the last page of the CD booklet to learn that Leonardo De Amicis and Stefano Mainetti composed the undistinguished score. Rather than expect art to make the pope’s message meaningful, Vatican Radio, which produced the CD, has apparently decided that the way to get the pope’s words into the most houses is to use a commercial-sounding background, however much it may, in parts, resemble the typical soundtrack of a Euro-trashy romp on the Riviera.

“Abba Pater,” however, exemplifies a larger dilemma in religious art today, namely how to reach the widest audience. The most exalted religious utterances do not necessarily rely on the vernacular. Indeed, the very point of religion has been to reveal that there is something beyond the everyday world. The King James version of the Bible is written in difficult and archaic language, yet vernacular translations never seem to catch on.

Likewise, some of the most substantive, and most uncompromising, of all musical compositions--most notably Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and Wagner’s “Parsifal"--are Easter-themed. (Passover has yet to inspire much music at all, let alone inspired work of equivalent stature.)

Maybe it’s our millennial state of mind, but we seem to be in our own global golden age of sacred music right now. In fact, Easter has recently gotten a new magnum opus in the massive new symphonic triptych, “Triduum,” by the young Scottish composer James MacMillan, that contains a one-movement concertante for English horn (“The World’s Ransoming”), a three-movement cello concerto and a three-part symphony (“The Vigil”). Recorded by the BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted by Osmo Vanska, it has just been released on two individual CDs by BIS, the venturesome Swedish label.

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MacMillan is an adamant composer, and he has produced a clamorous, personal, arrestingly grand statement in his “Triduum” that doesn’t so much follow the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the vigil preparing for the Day of Resurrection as capture the tremendous drama and emotions of the last days of the life of Jesus. This is vehement, rewarding music that compels a listener’s intense confrontation with it.

John Tavener’s ‘Eternity’s Sunrise’

Moreover, if the Catholic Church is not careful, the Greek Orthodox Church just may steal its musical thunder, if only with a whisper. John Tavener, the British composer whose music reflects his love for the incense and mystery of the Greek Orthodox ceremony, has a large following of listeners who finds that he, more than any other composer of sacred music today, captures the essence of spiritual ardor. His solemn cello concerto, “The Protecting Veil,” hushed a large Hollywood Bowl audience into meditative awe when Yo-Yo Ma played it last summer. A Tavener piece performed at the funeral of Princess Diana moved millions.

Ravishing as Tavener’s music can be, it can also, at least to my taste, seem suspiciously insinuating in its calm ravishment. Now, the latest Tavener recording, “Eternity’s Sunrise,” comes with the composer, almost like the devil holding out temptation, claiming it “the most beautiful CD of my music so far.”

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And yes, the 10-minute title composition is seductive in the extreme. Written for the gleaming soprano Patricia Rozario and a shimmering ensemble of period instruments--the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Paul Goodwin--it radiates sonorities that are about as close as music can come to the luster of gold, and lots of it.

The next Tavener work on the disc, “Song of the Angel” (featuring Rozario and violinist Andrew Manze), is a short Alleluia of slightly less sonic resplendence but no less stunning simplicity. In the booklet notes, Tavener prefaces the Alleluia with a quote from Indian art historian and scholar Ananda K. Coomaraswamy that speaks of a tranquillity revealed in “an eternal, angelic, ecstatic breath which liberates and humanizes.”

Such is the reach of genuine religious art, and with every piece on this extraordinary recording Tavener, who has managed to make a convert to his work from this doubter, makes that ecstatic reach. This is not exactly Easter music, but music to carry the spirit on through all the seasons. And although Harmonia Mundi won’t release it until a week after Easter, you can download a taste of it now from https://www.harmoniamundi.com.


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