Calliope TSOUPAKI (b. 1963)
St Luke Passion (2008)
Marcel Beekman (tenor); Ioannis Arvanitis (Byzantine singer); Raneen Hanna (Eastern singer); Members of the Egidius Kwartet; Members of the Ioannis Arvanitis Byzantine Choir; Nieuw Ensemble/Ed Spanjaard
rec. live, Muziekgebouw aan ‘t Ij, Amsterdam, 5 June 2008
Texts and translation
ET’CETERA KTC 1402 [76:40]
From Schütz onwards Christ’s Passion has triggered the imagination of many composers. Contemporary figures remain undaunted by the prospect of a Passion setting. One thinks of Frank Martin, Penderecki, Gubaidulina, Pärt and MacMillan. Some present-day composers such as Osvaldo Golijov approached the Passion with their own feelings and this often means reaching to their deepest cultural or multi-cultural roots. This is obviously the case with Calliope Tsoupaki who was born in Greece but has for quite a few years been resident in the Netherlands. Her St Luke Passion is strongly imbued with her Orthodox background. Her setting, however, is noticeably different from what one has come to expect. The ‘story-telling’ of the Passion is reserved for the long final section Pathos in which it is delivered quickly without undue fuss.
The work falls into four sections of which the last is by far the longest and the most developed. The first section Hymnos sets words by Romanos the Melodist (6th century AD). It functions as a huge portal to the work. In the dramatic Aria that follows Christ foretells his death describing the terrors that will precede his resurrection (words from St Luke’s Gospel). This section is entirely sung by the tenor. There follows a third section Threnos that for some reason is not included here. The final section Pathos opens with the Lord’s Prayer sung by the tenor and goes on to recount the Passion story from the Last Supper, the night in the Mount of Olives, Judas’ betrayal to Christ’s trial and Golgotha. The Lord’s Prayer is preceded by a long introduction consisting mainly of accompanied micro-tonally inflected wordless vocalises by the female Eastern singer. The Passion is then quickly delivered through rapid exchanges between Christ (tenor) and the Evangelist (Byzantine singer), sometimes over drones from the men’s voices. However, another hymn by Romanos (“My soul, my soul, rise up”) is interpolated before Judas’ betrayal. Christ’s last breath is echoed by a long solo played by the ney leading to the final blessing followed by florid, yet restrained Alleluias. This final section is then repeated with more emphasis on the Alleluias bringing the work to a peaceful close.
As already mentioned earlier in this review Tsoupaki draws on her Orthodox background and much of the music brings the Orthodox tradition to mind. It also goes much further than that in blending Eastern Orthodox tradition with Western musical tradition by the use of unusual instruments of eastern origin such as the ney (a sort of primitive oboe), a kemençe (a bowed stringed instrument) and a qanum (a plucked instrument). These are echoed by the winds and strings of the ensemble but also by the guitar, mandolin and the harp in the ensemble. The voices, too, belong to both worlds since we have a tenor and a Byzantine singer as well as a female Eastern singer whose part mostly consists of wordless micro-tonally inflected vocalises. There is then an ‘Occidental’ trio of men’s voices and a trio of ‘Byzantine’ voices. One might think that all this might eventually come up as mere exoticism but this is emphatically not the case. These various elements blend perfectly to achieve the composer’s universal vision of Christ’s Passion. The composer describes her work as an icon, not a painting. “It must reflect the power of what it represents. You cannot do this with sentimentality.” Drama, indeed, is not absent but acquires a ritual character achieved through restrained, though strong expressivity. Tsoupaki’s St Luke Passion is clearly a deeply sincere and deeply felt piece of music that cannot fail to impress.
This recording made during the first performance of the work during the 2008 Holland Festival is excellent by any count. Strong and committed singing and playing make the best of this most endearing work that clearly deserves to be heard but that is likely to remain a one-shot which makes this recording the more welcome. All in all, this is a most worthwhile release although I cannot help but feel a little frustrated that this is not a complete recording.
Hubert Culot
A deeply felt and sincere work that deserves to be heard.