Helmuth Rilling

Gubaidulina: Johannes-Passion, Johannes-Ostern

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Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart commissioned four composers -- Sofia Gubaidulina, Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, and Wolfgang Rihm -- to write Passion settings based on each of the Gospels for its 2000 commemoration of the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach's death. Gubaidulina's St. John Passion was originally in Russian, but in 2006 she wrote a revised version in German and added a second part, St. John Easter, creating a diptych called "The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ according to St. John." Hänssler's recording of the new version features Helmuth Rilling leading Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, and Kammerchor der Musikhochschule Trossingen. (Hänssler also released the original Russian version of the Passion, led by Valery Gergiev.)

Gubaidulina's "Passion and Resurrection" is an intensely devout, deeply felt expression of her religious convictions. At its grandest, as in the opening of the Passion and the endings of both sections, the music is transcendently powerful, but overall, the uncompromisingly thorny musical language demands a great deal from listeners, and may lose those who don't have a strong motivation to persevere through its rigors. The music is almost relentlessly dark; surprisingly, this is especially effective in the Resurrection, as a compelling depiction of the confusion, anger and distrust the disciples felt until they were finally convinced that Jesus was in fact resurrected. A large part of the piece is given to the Narrator, and Gubaidulina's chant-like text setting, often limited to a few notes within a very narrow compass, is ultimately wearing; while it sets the more musically engaging sections in higher relief, it's a chore to listen to. It's easy to imagine, though, that a live performance, with the visual component of the huge performing forces, would make it easier to experience the Narrator's role as a more integrated part of the whole. There is much evocative, dramatically apt, and compelling music here, and much to reward the listener who is motivated and attentive. Tenor Corby Welch, baritone Bernd Valentin, and bass Nicholas Isherwood perform with energy and conviction. (Isherwood's delivery of the Narrator's part is so fiercely, jarringly vehement that it must be written into his part, and not merely his interpretive choice.) Julia Sukmanova's soprano is shrill, with wobbly tone, enough so that it's a distraction whenever she's singing. The choral and orchestral performances are highly charged, both musically and dramatically. Hänssler does a good job clearly capturing the sounds of the enormous forces and the quiet moments, as well, and the ambience is atmospheric and spacious.

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