The best choral music for Easter
Britain’s top choral conductors name their favourite works for the festival
For hundreds of years, composers have been inspired by the Easter story to write some of the most beautiful and heart-rending classical music ever created. We asked some of Britain's top choral conductors to choose their favourite choral works...
JS Bach – Mass in B minor
This work is the ultimate piece to celebrate the Resurrection, but some recordings of Bach’s B minor mass seem to simply throw everything at the fortissimo passages and muddy the texture. Forceful yes, clear no.
John Eliot Gardiner manages the balance of precision with raw power just brilliantly. He creates the most exquisitely delicate orchestral textures, contrasting with explosive bursts of energy but never lacking in clarity. Every part is in perfect balance and the ensemble skills are stunning. It’s one of those very rare recordings where a large ensemble sound like they are totally inside the piece rather than just reacting to a histrionic beat being thrashed out in front of them by some overly physical conductor. There are some recordings which are similarly neat but often they go too far and sound mannered, with nothing spontaneous about the performance. On this recording a particular highlight is when choir and orchestra launch into ‘Et resurrexit’. It is electric, and you can hear absolutely every detail. Hearing this on Easter Day itself would be the perfect way to end Lent and celebrate the Resurrection.
- Nigel Short, Tenebrae
John Taverner – Dum Transisset
This work is an almost incomparably beautiful and haunting depiction of the moment (at sunrise) immediately before Mary Magdalen discovers that the stone of Jesus’s tomb has been rolled away.
As with most of my favourite choral music, I first encountered it through performing it as a child. There is no way to explain what such an experience does to the soul. The music (particularly a piece of such compact perfection) enters your bloodstream and every subsequent encounter, as a listener, singer or conductor, produces a heady feeling of elation mixed with the deepest familiarity.
Compositionally, this piece is so skillfully wrought that it manages to evoke the feeling of dawn, the echoes of the crucifixion and sunrise beyond the tomb. The crowning Alleluia is the embodiment of joy and hope.
- Suzi Digby, ORA Singers
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)
Mahler's ‘Resurrection’ symphony has always seemed to me to be the perfect vehicle for the sophisticated, blended sound of the leading orchestras in the German tradition. The latest from the Berlin Philharmonic features Simon Rattle, with Kate Royal and Magdalena Kozena as soloists. But perhaps the archive recording of choice is the one made in 1975 by the Vienna Philharmonic under Mehta, with Christa Ludwig and Ileana Cotrubas as soloists. In both these Mahler's extraordinary sound-world is so beautifully conveyed that the listener may well be left longing for Klopstock's 'Unsterblich Leben'.
- Peter Phillips, Tallis Scholars
Orlande de Lassus – Aurora lucis rutilat
A setting of an anonymous 4th century text - the Hymn for Lauds on Easter Sunday - Lassus’s motet begins by tenderly depicting the dawn of Easter morning, but soon leads to a double-choir celebration of the triumph of the resurrection, full of word-painting, jubilation and a brief triple-time passage proclaiming the joy of Easter day (‘in hoc pascali gaudio’). Written late in Lassus’s life, the work is a unique example in the Franco-Flemish composer's output of Venetian polychoral technique, with harmonic completeness in each choir. I programme this whenever possible during Eastertide with my Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, when I often pair it with the equally-magnificent Magnificat of the same name which borrows some material from the motet. Sung antiphonally by two choirs of youthful voices, it makes for a thrilling celebratory start to a liturgical service or concert.
- Graham Ross, The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Diogo Dias Melgas - Lamentations
It is a constant joy for us as performers to discover remarkable compositional feats and champion them in performance and on disc. Diogo Dias Melgas is a Portuguese composer from the country's17th-century Golden Age when the Braganza court was flourishing and had in Dom Joao IV a man who encouraged excellence in the arts and allowed the likes of Melgas to mature and develop his individuality. Melgas' eight part Lamentations are fascinating: at times sparse and solitary, at other times rich and sonorous. The score is unique as it actually specifies individual harp, archlute and organ parts to accompany the voices.
- Harry Christophers, The Sixteen
Anton Bruckner - Christus factus est
Among the finest motets written for Holy Week is this Gradual for Maundy Thursday. From its quiet, mysterious opening to its dramatic triple forte climax it leads the listener on a symphonic journey, full of pathos and gravitas. It is nothing short of a miniature masterpiece, encompassing some extraordinary modulations and sinewy, chromatic lines which are captured beautifully in the recording by Tenebrae conducted by Nigel Short.
- Esther Jones, National Youth Choir of Great Britain
Ralph Vaughan Williams – Five Mystical Songs
I love the personal and meditative qualities of George Herbert's poetry that is a constant thread through the first four poems, with the warmth and comfort of a solo baritone voice being a perfect protagonist. The triumph of Easter is then released in a glorious blaze in the Antiphon, the final song: 'Let all the world in every corner sing'.
Vaughan Williams was inspired by the visionary qualities in Herbert's poetry and conjures up great variety in moods, pictures and colours from the beginning to the end of the cycle. The way Herbert constantly refers to the heart and soul is met by the composer with passionate, beautiful music along with moments of incredible intimacy and delicacy.
- Neil Ferris, BBC Symphony Chorus
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