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New releases by the jazz double bassist Adam Booker, the late organist McNeil Robinson, and the Moscow Synodal Choir and Russian National Orchestra mark the arrival of what’s shaping up to be an inspiring and unusually diverse soundtrack to the Easter season.
The 13 selections constituting Adam Booker’s Seven Last Words (Shifting Paradigms) alternate between mournful David Heyes compositions for solo double bass, titled after Christ’s utterances from the cross (“Woman, Behold Your Son,” “I Thirst,” etc.), and sprightly, post-bop Booker originals for jazz trio and occasional trumpet and flügelhorn, titled after sections of traditional Christian liturgies (“Kyrie,” “Gloria,” “Credo,” “Agnus Dei”).
The effect of this juxtaposition of the sorrowful and the celebratory is akin to that of two parallel universes breaking into each other. There is, however, one problem: Either Booker or a Shifting Paradigm proofreader has bungled two of the titles, turning “Father, Forgive Them for They Know Not What They Do” into “Father, Forgive Them for They Know Not What to Do” and “Father, into Thy Hands I Commend My Spirit” into “Father, into Thy Hands I Commend Thy Spirit,” inadvertently giving new meaning to the expression “close enough for jazz.”
McNeil Robinson recorded his Stations of the Cross: Organ Improvisations (Delos) on the organ of New York City’s Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in March 2006, nine years before his death at the age of 72. Based on 14 crucial moments associated with Christ’s Passion (beginning with His sentencing and ending with the laying of His body in the tomb), the pieces find Robinson improvising on musical themes provided him by the American composer Ned Rorem.
An unidentified female narrator announces each station, freeing listeners from having to follow along in the accompanying booklet (though it’s well worth reading) and to make connections of their own between Robinson’s emotionally wide-ranging musical dramatizations and events such as “The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene” and “Jesus is nailed on the cross.” (Furiously roiling, the latter is the album’s most unmistakably programmatic piece.)
Richard Chartres is the narrator on the Moscow Synodal Choir and Russian National Orchestra’s magnificent new recording of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s St. Matthew Passion (English Version) (Melodiya). A retired Anglican bishop, Chartres sounds a lot like the late Paul Scofield and is therefore ideal for declaiming the King James verses running throughout an oratorio that skillfully blends various Western traditions and is increasingly perceived as one of the 21st century’s finest large-scale sacred works.
Additionally, the opera luminaries Agunda Kulaeva (“Jesus at Gethsemane”), Nikolai Didenko (“Peter’s Denial. The End of Judas”), Olga Peretyako (“Earthquake. The Virgin Mary’s Lament”), and Dmitry Korchak (tenor, “Jesus Arrested,” “Sealing the Stone”) are equally well suited to their roles. But it’s the choir and the orchestra, conducted by Alfeyev himself, that drive and shape the longest stretches. And it’s they therefore to whom most of the credit belongs.