Everyone listens to Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime, but it was originally performed at Eastertime, and the Easter portion of the piece has some gorgeous and infrequently performed gems, like the tenor aria “Behold and see if there be any sorrow” and the soprano aria that follows “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell.” So if you haven’t listened lately, dust off your CDs and listen to the WHOLE THING, not just the MoTab recording of the “highlights.” There are lots of good recordings out there, but I like Christopher Hogwood’s with the Academy of Ancient Music, because I like the chorus with boys instead of women. (yeah, it’s hard to be a feminist and early music critic at the same time!) I also like the clean sound of the smallish chorus, but if you want a big loud sloppy Hallelujah Chorus, you might not like this. I also LOVE Boston Baroque’s recording, which is even lighter and quicker, but it takes more getting used to if you’re used to Ormandy and MoTab.
However, Handel is just the very very beginning–there is so much GREAT stuff in the world!! What follows is a self-indulgent and highly opinionated list of indispensable classical music for Easter. Please add your own favorites, criticize mine, commit to learning to like one new bit of classical music this Easter season!
Vaughan Williams Mystical Songs
Easter always begins at my house with the ringing ascending fourth of Vaughan Williams’ setting of George Herbert’s poem “Easter”:
Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise.
There are five songs, all settings of George Herbert’s poems, and all perfect for Easter. The final song is “Love,” which I think is as nearly perfect a description of grace and atonement as exists in the English language:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefulle? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
There are (at least) two good recordings (though the very best, the old one with John Shirley Quirk, doesn’t exist anymore, alas): a Hyperion recording with Thomas Allen I like Allen a lot, but there’s also a perfectly nice recording with the London Philharmonic and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (I think), which has the songs paired with Vaughan Williams ‘Dona Nobis Pacem,’ which is much more interesting than Flos Campi and Serenade to Music, which are on the Hyperion disc.
Tenebrae Responsories–Healey Willan
Healey Willan is a solid, unflashy, workmanlike composer of TONS of Church music. His arrangements are only occasionally brilliant, but they’re also very rarely bad. In fact, they’re pretty consistently lovely. These settings of the scriptural texts for the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are simple and draw attention to the texts rather than themselves. Good for quiet, meditative listening.
Mendelssohn Six Anthems & Psalm 22
Mendelssohn’s choral music is (in my not at all humble opinion) massively underappreciated and underperformed. While his orchestral stuff sometimes seems like mediocre proto-Brahms, his choral music, especially some of the a capella writing from the last few years of his life, is just gorgeous, with a nice balance between Classical restraint and Romantic lushness. The Sechs Sprueche are motets for various holidays–Advent, Christmas, New Year’s (my favorite of the six), Ascension Day, Passiontide, and Good Friday. His Psalm settings, especially of Psalm 22 (My God, why hast thou forsaken me?) are also beautiful and point one in the direction of good Eastertime scriptural meditations. The Corydon Singers are one of my favorite choirs–nice clean sound, but not too youngish-sounding sopranos, excellent diction, good musical instincts (i.e. no ridiculous tempos or weird affectations).
The first time I heard this piece, I ran out and got a supply of M&Ms and Diet Coke (essentials for life), locked myself in my dorm room for two days, unplugged the phone, and just listened to it over and over for 48 hours straight. It’s a setting of the texts for the all night vigil of Easter Saturday which is part of the Russian Orthodox tradition of celebrating Easter. Rachmaninov’s settings are mind-bendingly beautiful, requiring incredible range and stamina from the choir, and just hauntingly, achingly, searingly lovely. Even without understanding Russian, it’s hard to miss the pathos and the dawning joy of the texts, because Rachmaninov’s music so thoroughly scales the heights and plumbs the depths of the emotional possibilities. There are two good recordings, one with the above-mentioned Corydon Singers, and one with Robert Shaw conducting. I like different things about each recording–you can’t really go wrong with either of them.
OK, so it’s a little trendy and overdone these days, but Maurice Durufle’s setting of the Requiem is a little gem. The Robert Shaw recording with Judith Blegen is, as one would expect, technically perfect, but I like the smaller, more intimate performance of the Corydon Singers a lot, too. And their disc includes the four motets, including Ubi Caritas, which no one should die without hearing.
Morton Lauridsen, a contemporary composer on the faculty at UCLA, writes some really nice stuff for chorus. It’s not necessarily the most brilliant composition around, but he does some pretty things with vocal textures, and I really like his settings of the “Lux Aeterna” text from the requiem, and the bits he adds from other medieval poetry. I especially love “Veni, Sancte Spiritu,” which asks the spirit to “cleanse what is filthy, strengthen what is weak, bend that which is stiff…”, etc. in a spirited and joyfully confident prayer.
Finally, of course, the obvious: The Saint Matthew’s & St. John’s Passion of J.S. Bach. I’m partial to the St. John–it’s less perfect than the Matthew, but I love the slightly raw and more emotional younger Bach. There are a gazillion recordings of the St. Matthew’s, only half a gazillion of the St. John’s. John Gardiner’s recordings of Matthew and John are the reference versions, but I’m hoping the Easter Bunny brings me the Herreweghe St. Matthew this year.