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 New Release Round-up, Music for Holy Week 2021

Music for Holy WeekThe festival of Easter, and the observances of Holy Week that mark the run-up to it, have inspired a rich and varied range of musical responses from composers down the centuries. The annually-enacted story of Jesus's trial and crucifixion encompasses both the lowest point of the Church's year - the spiritual 'darkness' commemorated in 'Tenebrae' services and musical settings of their texts - and the highest, namely the triumphant resurrection on Easter morning. It's not surprising that this crucial time of the liturgical year, and the considerable amount of poetry and literature that it has produced, have drawn from many composers some of their greatest and most profound works.

Below you can browse through what are, in my opinion, some of the finest recent recordings of works written for or inspired by Lent, Holy Week and Easter. It is, of course, a very truncated list representing only a tiny proportion of the huge volume of music out there!

Sandrine Piau (soprano), Stuart Jackson (tenor), Konstantin Krimmel (baritone), Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen

Gramophone notes that Arcangelo ‘yield to none in colour and dramatic tension’ – both attributes that Handel’s searing and graphic setting of the Passion narrative possesses in abundance. Brockes’s libretto inspires Handel to an almost operatic level of gesture and emotion, and the music draws a similarly impassioned response from the singers and players.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

New York Polyphony breathe new life into the oft-trodden 'old meets new' format with this album, juxtaposing the Renaissance Flemish school with the rich harmonies of the twentieth century’s Cyrillus Kreek and the contemporary composer Andrew Smith, whose twelve-minute setting of Psalm 55 was composed for the ensemble. Loyset de Compère’s extended setting of the Officium de Cruce hymn sits at the heart of the album.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Howard Arman

A rather better-known Estonian than Kreek, Arvo Pärt is nothing short of a household name; his Miserere is an expansive and often harrowing work, combining the titular plea for mercy with texts from the Dies irae depicting the Day of Judgement. Pärt’s trademark pared-back austerity of style sits side-by-side with monolithic tuttis, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Munich Radio Orchestra equally at home in both.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Knabenchor Capella Vocalis, Pulchra Musica Baroque Orchestra, Christian Bonath

Often passed over as a musical 'also-ran', chiefly known for having been the preferred candidate for the Thomaskirche post that eventually went to JS Bach, Christoph Graupner was no less a prolific composer of cantatas than his famous contemporary. This selection of his sacred vocal music traces the Triduum, with dramatic and melodious works for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

Patrick Grahl (Evangelist), Peter Harvey (Jesus), Gaechinger Cantorey, Hans-Christoph Rademann

JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion needs no introduction; its place among the very greatest works ever written is not in dispute. Hans-Christoph Rademann’s account of this pillar of the Baroque repertoire with the Gaechinger Cantorey initially tends towards a light touch and fluid, con moto tempi, emphasising the non-stop nature of the narrative – though as the Passion nears its climax they tend towards the slower and more meditative.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Gabriella Costa (soprano), Sanremo Symphony Orchestra, Giancarlo De Lorenzo

Despite later revising his Stabat Mater for three soloists with the stated aim of creating more musical variety, Boccherini was certainly not devoid of ideas when composing the original version heard here. Soprano Gabriella Costa ably rises to the challenge of bearing the entire musical and emotional weight on her shoulders alone.

Available Format: CD

Giulia Semenzato (soprano), Lucile Richardot (mezzo), Ensemble Resonanz, Riccardo Minasi

Paired with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, with its iconic opening of intense suspensions layered on top of one another, is a work long attributed to him but now known to be by his Catalan contemporary Joan Rossell. Giulia Semenzato and Lucile Richardot take the starring roles in Rossell’s Salve Regina for two voices – a volatile work containing far greater emotional heights and depths than the text alone would suggest.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Samuel Mariño (soprano), Filippo Mineccia (countertenor), Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal, Marie Van Rhijn

A second recording of the Pergolesi, here performed by two male voices, is coupled with Vivaldi’s solo setting of the same text – sung by the mellifluous dark tones of countertenor Filippo Mineccia. The album is completed by Vivaldi’s bustling concerto for Violin, Oboe and Organ and the extended motet In furore iustissimae irae, in which soprano Samuel Mariño takes the limelight.

Available Format: CD

Florie Valiquette (soprano), Adèle Charvet (mezzo), Reinoud Van Mechelen (tenor), Andreas Wolf (baritone), Le Concert de La Loge, Ensemble Aedes, Julien Chauvin

Composed at the height of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement in 1767, Haydn's Stabat mater was one of the composer's most frequently-performed works during his lifetime, but has since been rather eclipsed by the sunnier Creation and Seasons; it's complemented here by Symphonies Nos. 84 'In Nomine Domini' and 86, both commissioned by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges for his Parisian orchestra in 1786.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Orfeo Orchestra, Purcell Choir, György Vashegyi

Based largely on Graun's passion-cantata Ein Lämmlein geht und trägt die Schuld and featuring music by Telemann and JS Bach (as well as a mysterious anonymous composer, possibly Bach's son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnickol), this 'Passion Pasticcio' is thought to have been assembled in around 1750; unlike many contemporaneous settings of the Passion, it features no direct quotation from the Gospels and no first-person narrative.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Sophie Junker, Florie Valiquette (sopranos), Orchestre de l'Opéra Royal, Stéphane Fuget

Composed for Holy Week services at the Abbaye royale de Longchamp in 1714, François Couperin's three surviving Leçons de Ténèbres set Latin text from the Book of Lamentations, in which the prophet Jeremiah bewails the Babylonians' destruction of Jerusalem. They are followed here by Michel-Richard de Lalande's Cantique Quatrième and Motet pour le jour de Pâques.

Available Format: CD

Ensemble Correspondances, Sébastien Daucé

The French early music ensemble's programme features Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri, Fried- und Freudenreiche Hinfahrth and Herzlich Lieb hab ich dich O Herr, Schütz's Die sieben Worte Jesu Christ am Kreuz and Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott, and Lüdert Dijkman's Lamentum eller en Sorge Music.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

MDR Leipzig Radio Choir, Philipp Ahmann

Roughly a century separates the motets of these two composer-organists, with Bruckner’s far more popular works drawing heavily on the tradition established by Michael Haydn; this collection includes Haydn’s Salve regina, O vos omnes and Tenebrae factae sunt, Bruckner’s Virga Jesse, Ave Maria, Pange lingua and Vexilla regis, and both composers’ settings of Christus factus est.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Fieri Consort, Chelys Consort of Viols

Each of these eight five-part fantasias for viols by Michael East (1580–1648) has a Latin title, moving from ‘Desperavi’ (‘despair’) to ‘Amavi’ (‘love’); they are interspersed here by selected vocal works by the same composer, including When David Heard that Absalom was Slain, Turn Thy Face from My Wickedness, and O Give Me the Comfort of Thy Help Again. The programme is rounded off by a new commission by Jill Jarman, setting a verse by East’s contemporary Sir Henry Wotton entitled ‘Now my thoughts are at peace’.

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC

Orkester Nord, Martin Wahlberg, Vox Nidrosiensis

Due for release on 16th April, The Life and Passion of the Christ weaves together six cantatas by the Bohemian-born German composer Augustin Pfleger (1635-86) to form a first-person narrative which begins with the Annunciation and ends with Christ’s appearance to the disciples after his Resurrection, taking in the encounter with the Canaanite Woman and the miraculous healings along the way.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC