New Releases: Seasonal Bach and Rare Russian Miniatures

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This week's featured albums capture the spirit of the Easter and Passover season. Two Bach releases are on tap: last year's buzzed-about St. Matthew Passion set by the Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin and a brand-new recording of Bach's Easter Oratorio led by John Eliot Gardiner. Plus, we sample a collection of Russian miniatures by the bright young violinist Yevgeny Kutik.

Bach's St. Matthew Passion
Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin
RIAS Chamber Choir
Harmonia Mundi
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Premiered on Good Friday, 1736, the St. Matthew Passion was the work Bach regarded as his greatest. Conductor Rene Jacobs has drawn on recent research to come to the conclusion that the first performance in Leipzig had the two groups of musicians (instrumental and vocal) at opposite ends of St. Thomas’s Church (rather than next to each other, as is usually done), each with its own organ in its own gallery. The effect was to create a heavenly “cosmos” of perfect balance that surrounds the audience. Jacobs tries to simulate those first performances, with the second, smaller group sounding more distant (the sonic depth captured in SACD sound). But of equal draw in this 2-CD set, released last November, is the expressive singing and playing the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, RIAS Chamber Choir and solid group of soloists (including tenor Werner Gura as a fine Evangelist). A short making-of DVD film accompanies the set.

Bach: Easter Oratorio
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists
John Eliot Gardner
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Compared with his great Passion narratives and his Christmas Oratorio, Bach's Easter Oratorio is a short and relatively unfamiliar work. But in a little more than 40 minutes it packs in plenty of suspense, anguish and glory. The latest installment in the widely admired Bach Cantata series by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists led by John Eliot Gardiner presents this work along with his funeral cantata Actus tragicus. Listening to this album, it’s hard to know why this pieces isn’t better known, for it has all of the drama, lyricism and ceremony of Bach’s greatest works, with reflective arias and massive choruses reinforced by baroque high trumpets and timpani. The striking cover photo, of stilt fisherman in Sri Lanka, is consistent with a series that has attempted to show the universality of Bach’s message by portraying people from traditional cultures (a conceit that the late critic Marion Lignana Rosenberg questioned on WQXR.org last year).

Listen to Jeff Spurgeon's interview with John Eliot Gardiner about Bach

Music from the Suitcase
Yevgeny Kutik, violin
Timothy Bozarth, piano
Marquis Classics
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Yevgeny Kutik is a 28-year-old violinist born in Minsk, Belarus. He came to the U.S. in 1990, when his parents decided they had enough of the anti-Semitism that they saw around them and wanted to make a better life their family. Kutik's violinist musician mother was forced to leave her instrument behind – it was valuable and deemed public property – but she did manage to take a stash of sheet music that contained numerous rarely performed short works for violin and piano. These included works by both prominent composers and those whose names never quite broke through the Iron Curtain. Kutik dusted these off and features many of them on this collection, including André Eshpai’s Rhapsody Hungarian Tunes; a Nocturne from Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite; a waltz from Prokofiev’s Cinderella; Stravinsky's Divertimento and some leaves from “Children’s Album,” by Sviridov. Joined by pianist Timothy Bozarth, Kutik delivers the performances with a blend of polished dexterity and genteel, old-world charm.

As Kutik told the New York Times, the sheet music his parents brought over “is the physical embodiment of our family and our journey,” adding, “It reminds me of what we went through and how far we have come.”