Music for Holy Week

Martin CullingfordMon 29th March 2010
Music for Holy WeekMusic for Holy Week

From Tallis to MacMillan, some suggested listening

The liturgy and events of Holy Week, which began yesterday, lie behind some of the most inspired and powerful works in the entire repertoire. By now churches are sombre and bare, statues having been covered up, the altars set to be stripped after the Maundy Thursday service – and so much of the music is correspondingly meditative and sombre. Conversely, faced with depicting the events of the Passion story itself, Bach produced some of the most movingly dramatic music ever written; monuments of the repertoire, Bach’s Passions seem a good place to start.

My list begins with Nikolaus Harnoncourt's 2001 recording of the "Great Passion", the St Matthew, on Teldec – a worthy Gramophone Award winner. It boasts emotional performances rich in both humanity and vulnerability from Christoph Prégardien as the Evangelist, Matthias Goerne as Christus, along with Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann, Bernarda Fink...the list of soloists continues as a Who's Who of oratorio excellence, and all shine (Amazon).

An alternative and equally illuminating approach from two years later came from Paul McCreesh, who used single voices for the chorus. This is a much more intimate reading – the singing at times feels almost painfully personal, and Mark Padmore is a deeply engaged Evangelist (Passionato / Amazon).

James Gilchrist, a soloist on the McCreesh recording, steps up the role of Evangelist in one of the leading recordings of Bach’s St John Passion, from Edward Higginbottom and the Choir of New College Oxford. The choristers’ voices and Higginbottom's conducting seem to lend the performance a palpable sense of emotional urgency (Classicsonline / Amazon).

Arvo Pärt's 1982 Passio – based on St John's Gospel – in its sparer musical language and use of Latin seems to return us, in spirit at least, to the Passion as performed by the early church. Tonus Peregrinus on Naxos wonderfully capture the work’s profound spirituality (Classicsonline / Amazon). An even more recent setting of the St John text came from James MacMillan just last year. An 80th birthday present for Sir Colin Davis, this deeply-felt contemporary response can be heard on LSO Live (Amazon).

Staying with MacMillan, another recent release, this time on Linn, of MacMillan choral music moves us on to music for Tenebrae. Meaning “darkness”, the service takes place on the last three days of Holy Week (or the evenings before), during which all candles in the church are gradually extinguished until there is no light at all. This Linn release, sung by Cappella Nova, includes settings of three of the Good Friday Tenebrae responses (Linn).

Our first Renaissance suggestion so far, Gesualdo's Tenebrae Responses for Maundy Thursday conveys what a creative composer the Italian madrigal master was. The recording by the King's Singers, on Signum, also includes the chanted Lamentations of Jeremiah which precede the responses (Passionato / Signum). Earlier still, Tallis's Lamentations of Jeremiah are a particularly reflective meditation, inspired one might imagine both by the texts and the religious turmoil of 16th-century England. And who better to hear them performed by than The Tallis Scholars (Gimell)? And staying with The Tallis Scholars, their most recent release (marking 30 years of their record label Gimell) is of Victoria’s Lamentations, an expressive and equally intense Tenebrae work (Gimell).

And finally, a non-vocal suggestion. Haydn wrote The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross for the Good Friday service at the cathedral at Cadiz. It provided appropriate musical interludes between the priest’s meditations on Christ’s final statements, and offers a moving journey through grief, resignation and redemption. Initially for orchestra, Haydn’s later version for string quartet has a vivid intimacy which well suits the subject, and is superbly performed by the Fitzwilliam Quartet on Linn (Linn).

The suggestions above barely touch the surface of Holy Week music, but should certainly see you through until the exuberance of Easter. But I’d be delighted to hear your own suggestions for further Holy Week listening – please do leave them below.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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