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Notable CDs

Notable CDs | Four new or recent classical CDs reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

The Cosmic Divide

Style: Four cosmos-evoking orchestral works by the American composer and organist Hampson Sisler and Rachmaninov's "Russian Song, Op. 11, No. 3."

Worldview: "The Cosmic Divide is based on a narrative contained in [chapters 12, 13, and 14 of] the Book of Revelation and describes the division of the universe into the basic forces of good and evil" (the liner notes).

Overall quality: Under the direction of Arkady Leytush, the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine brings the apocalyptic awe of Sisler's compositions to thrilling and, at times, terrifying life.

Virgil Thomson: The Plow That Broke the Plains/The River

Style: Virgil Thomson's complete soundtrack scores for two 1930s New Deal propaganda films, performed by the 42-member Post-Classical Ensemble under the direction of Angel Gil-Ordóñez.

Worldview: "[B]oth The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River function like 'evangelical sermons'-they describe a state of grace, its desecration, and-via New Deal policies-redemption" (Joseph Horowitz's liner notes).

Overall quality: The Whitmanian pastiche of Thomson's Americana not only served as a link between Charles Ives and Aaron Copland but also achieved a timelessly inspirational grandeur.


Style: Gregorian chant, the Burana Codex, 15th- to 16th-century sacred music, and 19th-century Spanish-Portuguese folk, as interpreted by the operatic tenor John Potter and Milos Valent (violin, viola), John Surman (saxophone, clarinet, recorders), and Stephen Stubbs (baroque guitar, vihuela).

Worldview: "[W]e have tried to keep to the spirit of the originals while at the same time freeing the music from its original context" (Potter's liner notes).

Overall quality: What one might hear, aided by the miraculous, echoing in and around the ruins of a long-abandoned European monastery at midnight.

J.S. Bach: St. John Passion (1725 version)

Style: The second version of Bach's setting of John 18 and 19 (Martin Luther's translation).

Worldview: "While the [first movement] from 1724, 'Lord our ruler,' emphasizes the glory of God, the [1725 first movement], 'bewail your great sin,' focuses on . . . how humanity caused the suffering of Jesus Christ" (Markus Rathey's liner notes).

Overall quality: Under the direction of the erstwhile King's Singer Simon Carrington and accompanied by the Yale Collegium Players, the singers, both solo and in ensemble, do exemplary justice to every facet of this masterpiece.


In the pivotal scene of the justly acclaimed 2006 German film The Lives of Others, a career member of the East German State Security (Stasi) is moved to tears while spying on an unsuspecting playwright and hearing him play a portion of a piece called "Sonata for a Good Man" on the piano. The idea is that a genuine experience of great art can soften even the hardest of hearts and engender self-sacrificing heroism where once grew nothing but cruelty and suspicion.

Critics who question the believability of the scene will be less inclined to do so after hearing the Yale Schola Cantorum's recording of the 1725 version of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. John Passion (Rezound). So masterly is the performance that, even without the CD booklet's English translation of Luther's German, it is difficult to imagine the failure of anyone who surrenders to the music to be awestruck into the stillness required to "know that He is God."


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