It might seem the height of hubris to take the text of one of the most iconic classical pieces ever written and use it to create an entirely new work, but who could refuse such a commission from the prestigious International Bach Academy, Stuttgart, and the Oregon Bach Festival? Swedish composer Sven-David Sandström (born 1942), a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, is not known to general audiences, but he was one of the few (non-Eastern European) composers schooled in rigorous modernism who was devoting serious attention to religious music in the late 20th century. The piece certainly has to be considered on its own merits, apart from the masterpiece with which it happens to share a text. It's a curious, uneven work, which, despite the accessibility of its tonal language, seems more likely to inspire bemusement than affection. Perhaps in his zeal to avoid any reference to Handel, Sandström ignores or contradicts rather than illuminates the meaning of the texts. The piece gets off to a portentous, harmonically hazy start with a Comfort Ye that sounds more creepy than comforting, but otherwise Sandström sticks close to fairly traditional contemporary tonality in most movements. Minimalism is a powerful influence in some movements, such as "Every Valley" and "His Yoke Is Easy," with short phrases jerkily repeated in a style similar to what John Adams used, to comic effect, in Nixon in China. It couldn't have been the composer's intention, but the results sound flippant and sometimes just silly. He is also generous in the profusion of old-fashioned conventions like parallel thirds that as often as not sound trite and out of place. Under the leadership of Helmut Rilling, the chorus and orchestra of Festivalensemble Stuttgart perform wholeheartedly and expertly, and the soloists all do very well with the frequently florid and rhythmically complex vocal writing. The sound of Carus' live recording is clean, spacious, and balanced.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2