Lorraine Hunt Lieberson / Dawn Upshaw / Willard White / Kent Nagano

John Adams: El Niño

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El Niño is an ambitious project that could have easily become overblown in execution, but thankfully that is not the case. This warm and sometimes moving oratorio humanizes the Nativity story by emphasizing Mary's perspective and the miracle of birth. The texts are in English, Spanish, and Latin and are based on a variety of sources, including the New Testament Apocrypha and contemporary Latin American poetry. The music also incorporates a wide range of styles and influences, including jazz, show tunes, and Handel's "Messiah," but it coheres under Adams' distinctive rhythmic approach. It begins with the steady repetition of a D minor chord, followed by the introduction of polyrhythms and dissonance, as well as countertenors Brian Cummings and Dan Brubeck. Both of them, as well as the third countertenor, Steven Rickards, give golden performances on this album. The same is true for the three soloists, mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and baritone Willard White, who are all cast in flexible roles. For example, Upshaw sings the role of the Virgin Mary in the second piece, "Hail, Mary, Gracious!" (adapted from The Play of Annunciation from Martial Rose's version of The Wakefield Mystery Plays), and mezzo soprano Lieberson gives a fiery performance in the same role in the third piece, "La Anunciacion," which is based on the poetry of Rosario Castellanos (who is also the source of "Se Habla de Gabriel," "Memorial de Tlatelolco," and "A Palm Tree"). The next three pieces, including "Magnificat" (which features an assured, sensitive performance by Upshaw), draw on St. Luke for their text. White makes his first appearance as Joseph on the seventh piece, "Now She Was Sixteen Years Old," and also appears as Herod later on; he effectively conveys both Joseph's confusion and Herod's anger in his forceful performances. The more reflective second half of this album isn't as immediately accessible as the first, and sometimes suffers from cursory narrative passages, but it also benefits from delicate touches and mostly preserves the emotional power of the first half.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
El Niño, a Nativity Oratorio
1 6:20 Amazon
2 4:47 Amazon
3 9:34 Amazon
feat: Chorus
1:15 Amazon
5 3:30 Amazon
6 3:23 Amazon
7 3:20 Amazon
8 4:32 Amazon
9 5:54 Amazon
10 8:26 Amazon
11 6:45 Amazon

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
El Niño, a Nativity Oratorio
feat: Chorus
4:35 Amazon
2 2:27 Amazon
feat: Chorus
4:22 Amazon
4 2:26 Amazon
5 5:24 Amazon
feat: Chorus
1:12 Amazon
7 4:22 Amazon
feat: Chorus
1:43 Amazon
feat: Chorus
9:12 Amazon
feat: Chorus
3:20 Amazon
feat: Chorus
3:35 Amazon
12 2:50 Amazon
13 7:57 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick