Bent Sørensen revises a sacred tradition with his 'St Matthew Passion'
As a musical extrapolation of Christ’s death and resurrection, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion inhabits a class of its own. Written specifically for Good Friday and typically lasting some three hours, it is “one of the pillars of Western sacred music,” as NPR’s Tom Huizenga recently put it, “at once monumental and intimate, deeply sorrowful and powerful.”
Now the Danish composer Bent Sørensen has completely rejiggered this icon of faith, creating something wilder and ultimately more piercing in its strangeness. His new St Matthew Passion is one of the most striking and stirring large choral works of recent years.
Sørensen’s vision began to coalesce in 2014, with unwavering focus (and a joint commission from the Oslo International Church Music Festival and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra). Almost a decade later — following pandemic delays and a live premiere in 2022 — his new work has been released on BIS Records.
The result shows off the transcendent skill of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, a group of 26 voices originally founded in 1950, and led since 1990 by conductor Grete Pederson. Their vocal prowess joins with the crystalline textures of Ensemble Allegria, created in 2007 by a group of Norwegian music students.
Recorded in March 2022 at Ris Church in Oslo, the work benefits from that setting, with resonance that showcases the instrumentalists’ clarity and virtuosity. Sound engineer Nora Brandenburg has captured the most minute details — imagine contemplating the veins of a leaf — while allowing the denser choral clouds to bloom, often brushing against boiling masses of strings or piquant woodwinds.
Compared to Bach’s massive opus, Sørensen’s take is leaner, running slightly over an hour. With surgical precision, Danish tenor Jakob Holtze has stitched together texts from disparate sources: passages from the Bible’s Book of Matthew, a handful of Psalms, and a brief extract from Isaiah. But Holtze masterfully adds to these, grafting lines from Emily Dickinson and the contemporary poets Anna Akhmatova, Edith Södergran, Søren Ulrik Thomsen, Ole Sarvig, and Frank Jæger.
Sørensen conveys passion with torrents of unusual harmonies: complex and lucid yet delicate, like frost tracery on glass. Lines appear to head in one direction, before branching off in another. Shimmering, faint dissonances and the muted desolation of trumpet and English horn lend an edge to otherwise consonant chords. Brief moments of glitter devolve into long sequences of unearthly moaning. Silences also figure prominently, as if for brief moments, the music itself has become inadequate, secondary to contemplation.
Sørensen’s stark canvas courts ambiguity and conflicting emotions; peacefulness rubs against pain and disorientation. In “Wild Nights,” he melds Dickinson’s words to part of the first verse of Isaiah, chapter 43, with mournful vocals pitted against string flourishes and raucous brass outbursts that singe the eyebrows. The “Crucifixus” section — for some listeners, the work’s nexus — startles with a raw melange of brass, bells, and gongs, jarring in their squawking timbres.
In the “Tenebrae,” intoning “there was darkness over the land,” the choir’s basses descend with stark malevolence, as if crawling on the earth’s surface. Sobriety combines with luminosity and shreds of violence for an unearthly, baleful energy.
Four soloists from the superb choir deserve commendation: soprano Ditte Marie Bræin, alto Mari Askvik, tenor Øystein Stensheim, and bass Halvor Festervoll Melien all navigate the piece’s rapid mood shifts with the musical equivalent of an unwavering, unflinching stare.
Perhaps the most Bach-like sequence arrives late, in the shortest of the work’s 10 sections: “The shore again, Galilee,” a somber chorale interlude. Then the finale blazes into view with dense squalls, groaning double bass figures, and despondent woodwind nasality. Finally comes a fragment from Thomsen’s 2011 poem Shaken Mirror:
On the way back […]
I suddenly stop.
But the sound of my footsteps
goes on, into the mist…
And as those footsteps disappear, everything evaporates. The final 15 seconds are left to an ever-so-delicate clicking — a heartbeat, perhaps, at the threshold of hearing.
In his liner notes, Sørensen calls Bach’s St. Matthew Passion “...maybe the greatest work of art in any genre ever to be created in our culture.” Though it’s far too early to make a similar declaration about his Passion (something worth checking in on in about 300 years), Sørensen has created an hourlong piece of wrenching intensity, not easily shaken off. As a modern meditation, it carries its own unnerving weight and profundity.
Bent Sørensen's St Matthew Passion is available now on BIS Records.