John Adams probably wouldn’t like to be hailed the Benjamin Britten of his generation any more than he likes being called a minimalist. But with his 2012 Passion oratorio based on Bach, the American composer follows Britten in proving himself not only as a master orchestrator, but also as composer of the most striking and politically potent vocal music of his time. He also has in common with his British predecessor his gravitation towards earth-shattering historical events with a deeply compassionate response to human tragedies – the September 11 threnody On the Transmigration of Souls and the respectfully handled Israel-Palestine discourse in The Death of Klinghoffer, the latter also based loosely on the Passions of Bach.

This two-hour work for large forces, including cimbalom and no fewer than three counter-tenors, features a libretto (drawn from Old and New Testament and poems on faith and liberty) by Peter Sellars, who collaborated with Adams on Nixon in China and staged The Gospel last year – “told not by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but rather according to the other John and Peter,” quipped the Los Angeles Times critic. (In fact, events are related in a fascinating new light by the mezzo-soprano soloist as Mary Magdalene). There is no Gustavo in the Bible, but the Venezuelan maestro at the head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic completes an impressive trinity, having commissioned the work and conducted this premiere recording. Like his Mahler, Dudamel’s approach to Adams is clean and precise, yet pulsing with fiery life, soul and despair. The LA Phil are at their most detailed and sensitive in response to the demands of Adams’ score, with its motoric rhythms and fierce syncopation, menacing lashings of electric bass juxtaposed with delicate gongs.

It is the turba (crowd) choruses, rather than the solos, that offer the most astonishing vocal effects; the moans of terror and awe interjecting against eerie, uncomfortably close wordless harmonies as Mary’s brother Lazarus is raised from the dead. Adams maintains interest and energy through constantly shimmering orchestral details such as the undulating clarinet flourishes in surging arpeggios of restless strings as Mary washes the feet of Jesus. Within a couple of minutes, it’s built to an enormous choral clamour thick with instrumental touches for the medieval text Spiritus Sanctus. Even so, lyricism and luminosity are never sacrificed in this haunting work containing some of Adams’ most viscerally powerful music. Already one
of the best classical releases of 2014.