The deepest listening for Passover and Easter: Four music pieces of profound meaning

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

We're well warned of enduring some of our hardest coronavirus days. Passover and Easter are serious holidays that alert us to world-altering shifts. For Jews it was the throwing off their bonds of Egyptian slavery, which led to adaptation of the Ten Commandments. Easter recounts the single most consequential death in history.

It is no coincidence that three of the most profound musical works of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries happen to address the meaning of Passover and Easter. We have Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," Wagner's "Parsifal" and Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron." We also have a new candidate, John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," given its premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2012 and already being put to the perspicacity test.

In our solitude, we cannot expect the shared wonderment of Passions and operas meant to be consecrations of the stage as well as church. But these sacred offerings inspire deeply private thought as well, and in recordings, videos and streams -- some brand new -- they offer a special kind of personal solace when heard home alone.

What makes all four all the more meaningful in our current situation is that, despite their religiosity, they transcend denominations. Instead, they embrace the universality of human need, just as we are seeing in this global moment how the world's most serious crises, those of pandemics and climate change, demand a collaborative global response.

To begin with, we are reminded here that Passover and Easter are not inseparable. The Last Supper, so movingly portrayed in the two Passions and at the heart of "Parsifal," were the Passover Seder. "Parsifal" suggests a way forward and can almost be interpreted as a Buddhist parable about common good in Christian garb. Its centerpiece: the Holy Grail, the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, giving it magical powers. "Moses und Aron" is a righting of our moral compass, a necessity in times of great crisis.

Choices for where to turn for the "St. Matthew Passion" are bewildering. Long recognized as a masterpiece of masterpieces, there are any number of approaches to it, from grandly romantic statements to clinically musicological ones. I'm not sure we want anything too overblown right now (although Otto Klemperer's classic recording with great opera singers has a magnificence not to be underestimated) or clinical.


A new recording in which Masaaki Suzuki conducts his eloquent Bach Collegium Japan feels exactly right for our occasion. The Bach specialist, who uses period instruments and small forces, accepts no untoward emotion and rejects no genuine feeling. Without lacking warmth, the performance suggests an acceptance that life as what it is can be reflected in an acceptance of Bach's music as what it is, no more, no less. Suzuki's way to the spirit is simply to be in the spirit with loving attention to detail.

The conductor and keyboardist hasn't changed his approach since first recording the Passion in 1999 and performing it live at UCLA four years later. But he has deepened it. There is a oneness among singers and instrumentalists and from the exceptional recorded sound that is special.

Choices are myriad as well for "Parsifal," be it videos and audio recordings that go back to the first days of either format. "Parsifal" was Wagner's last, most accomplished and most glowing score, but it also achieved something no other composer had yet and that is particularly striking right now as we experience the glories of an unsullied springtime during the worst of times.

In "Parsifal," a holy fool finds enlightenment by learning compassion. Sins are resolved. The wounds they cause are healed through becoming one with nature. Terrible suffering and blooming flowers are both holy.


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