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THE DEBRECEN PASSION (2015)

Kati Agocs

"Agócs pays tribute to her Hungarian heritage in the disc’s titular score, The Debrecen Passion, a setting of Christ’s persecution and death built around verses by the poet Szilárd Borbély (1963-2014), a native of the Hungarian city of Debrecen. As she melds the 12 female voices of the remarkable Lorelei Ensemble with glowing orchestral sonorities, Agócs also suspends vocal lines on Latin and Jewish texts. The 23‑minute work is an iridescent wonder."

– GRAMOPHONE MAGAZINE, October 2017 (Donald Rosenberg)


"The record's core is The Debrecen Passion, a mystical confluence of the sacred and secular illuminated by the superb Lorelei Ensemble and BMOP.....sublime"

- THE BOSTON GLOBE, Top Classical Ten Albums of 2016 (Zoë Madonna)


"The Debrecen Passion forms the centre-piece of the disc and, at 23 minutes, is the largest work. Agócs’s adventurous score employs 12 female voices, a chamber orchestra, whose motley percussion section includes a cimbalom, and vocal texts drawn from diverse sources. The poems of Szilárd Borbély (1963-2014) form the backbone, and these are interspersed with Latin fragments, a Medieval Hungarian lyric poem, a Kabbalistic Prayer and a Medieval Georgian hymn. The work takes its title from Debrecen, the second largest city in Hungary, home to Borbély, who tragically committed suicide a year before the Passion’s composition. Its central thread is the story of the persecution and death of Christ. Ambitiously constructed, this visceral work is expertly orchestrated, Agócs achieving a myriad array of instrumental colour and texture. The vocal writing, calling for solos, duos, trios and chorus, is expertly crafted. The Lorelei Ensemble under Beth Willer are obviously well-rehearsed, and their flawless ensemble, clarity of articulation, shapely voicings and precise diction helps secure favourable results. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project provide sterling support. Gil Rose’s sympathetic and supportive direction presents music rife with detail and he truly brings the score to life. All told, this work delivers a moving, spiritual experience, both powerful and uplifting"

– MUSICWEB INTERNATIONAL, Recording of the Month/Review of The Debrecen Passion by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Lorelei Ensemble, September 17, 2016 (Stephen Greenbank) 


“On the far end of the program came the evening’s second premiere: “The Debrecen Passion” an ambitious new score by the Boston-based composer Kati Agócs, written for BMOP and the singers of the versatile Lorelei Ensemble. Debrecen was the home city of the gifted writer Szilárd Borbély, who committed suicide last year and whose poems form the spine of Agocs’s “Passion,” surrounded by other texts, of medieval Latin, Hungarian, and Georgian origin, as well as a mystical Hebrew prayer. 

It is a striking work that places a complex sonic palette at the service of a visceral intensity of expression, one that can be glimpsed from the descriptive markings in the score, where Agócs writes at different points: “In large waves,” “Sheets of sound,” and “Arriving – Radiant.” Her billowing vocal writing is likewise highly expressive in an instrumental sense yet also subtle; at one point the chorus divides to sing three different texts simultaneously. As a result of this broader approach, at Saturday’s initial hearing, the precise meanings of the chosen texts felt less clearly distilled, and in some ways less important to Agócs, than the heterodox richness of the sound world she has fashioned for them. Under Rose’s direction, the excellent Lorelei singers and the unflappable BMOP players gave this work a dazzling first performance." 

– THE BOSTON GLOBE, Review of The Debrecen Passion as premiered by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Lorelei Ensemble, January 24, 2015 (Jeremy Eichler) 


“Effective writing for women’s voices–solo, and in trios and choruses—also characterized the evening’s other premiere, The Debrecen Passion by the Hungarian-American-Canadian composer Kati Agócs. Commissioned by the Jebediah Foundation for BMOP and the Lorelei Ensemble (a Boston-based group of nine female singers, increased to twelve for this performance), this ambitious, wide-ranging piece bore the date 2015 in the program, making it the newest of new music, maybe even a wet-pixel premiere. 

The word “passion” in the title might lead one to expect a retelling of Christ’s Crucifixion. While not attempting that, the new work did aim for emotional and spiritual ties to the great choral works of that name by Schütz, Handel, Bach, and many others, as it set poems on love and lamentation from ancient sources and by the poet Sándor Borbély, who lived in Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city, until his death last year. 

Besides Borbély’s Hungarian, the chorus sang in Latin, Hebrew, and Georgian—and a modern translation of the oldest known poem in the Hungarian language—as composer Agócs ranged wide in time and geography in search of texts to meditate on, setting them without movement breaks in a continuous performance lasting a little over 20 minutes. 

The vocal performances were consistently clear and expressive, with soprano Sonja Tengblad the standout, tenderly introducing the work with Borbély’s “If I could…” and soaring over her trio-mates in the section “I can’t…” 

Who can resist the sound of women’s voices climbing high in close harmony? Agócs certainly couldn’t, as time after time she twisted rising vocal lines into radiant cluster chords, a sound capable of expressing either intense lament or exultation. 

Just in one section, the setting of a medieval parody on the hymn Stabat Mater, her wide orchestral vocabulary took the music from chant-like vocal lines, delicately accompanied by high percussion and pizzicato double basses, to a fast, three-to-a-bar dance with big-band thunder. 

As the program notes by Robert Kirzinger acknowledged, the other, more everyday meaning of “passion” was well represented in this work, and by the closing pages on the Georgian hymn “Thou Art a Vineyard” the music was animated by a kind of Song-of-Solomon like merging of spiritual and earthly ecstasy. The clouds of complex 21st-century harmony even parted here and there for moments of movie-score lushness. 

But Agócs’s score remained unpredictable to the end, swinging between thoughtful violin solos to broad statements for the full orchestra to unison chants in the chorus. The composer seemed to pick up her texts and look at them from all angles, before closing the piece (and Saturday’s concert) resolutely on a crescendo chord for chorus and orchestra.” 

– BOSTON CLASSICAL REVIEW, Review of The Debrecen Passion as premiered by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Lorelei Ensemble, January 24, 2015 (David Wright) 


“Last came the other premiere, The Debrecen Passion by Kati Agócs, a Canadian of half-Hungarian-extraction who now teaches at New England Conservatory and has garnered a good deal of attention. Her work is not a passion in the sense of the oratorio-sized works of Bach and other Baroque composers, or in the revived style of Penderecki’s, but is a setting of seven lyric-sized texts, three by Hungarian poet, novelist and literary historian Szilárd Borbély (1964-2014; he committed suicide in Debrecen, where he had lived and worked), two contemplations of Mary, one Latin the other Hungarian, one Kabbalistic prayer and one medieval Georgian hymn. In these settings Agócs examines passions of several sorts, the fragility of love, the greatness of God, and, oh yes, the death of Jesus. In the panel discussion, Agócs said that her funding source, the Jebediah Foundation, had given her carte blanche to create as big and as long a work as she felt like, and this 20-plus-minute piece (her longest to date) is fitted out with impressive orchestral forces, plus the Lorelei singers. While far from inaccessible, her writing is intricate and layered. Much of the choral treatment draws on earlier Ligeti techniques of “micro-polyphony,” densely packed, close dissonant harmony that, in the vocal writing, sounded ravishingly beautiful. Setting modern poetry can be tricky, and Borbély’s was not always easy to parse; Agócs wisely avoided overt word-painting. The orchestral writing was fluent and often did its job well of adding emotional depth to the texts and the vocal lines; in two instances there were orchestral interludes of great power and beauty, and the final Georgian hymn concludes (save a final blast and morendo from the orchestra) in a modally inflected harmony that evokes Alan Hovhaness (okay, he was Armenian, not Georgian, but musically it’s pretty close). 

– THE BOSTON MUSICAL INTELLIGENCER, Excerpts from Review of The Debrecen Passion as premiered by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Lorelei Ensemble, January 24, 2015 (Vance R. Koven)


"A spiraling work for 12 female voices and chamber orchestra. A glimpse of any given moment exposes waves of Krzysztof Penderecki-like vocal clusters, pulsing chant, flurries of Baroque trumpet and sumptuous Late-Romantic orchestration....It's an overwhelming plate of emotion and color...The music's subject matter is, after all, the Passion of Christ.  Agócs filters and rearranges the story through lenses of Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély, Kabbalistic prayer and ancient Latin, Hungarian and Georgian religious texts. But it's more than a sum of disparate influences. The Debrecen Passion is high-craft, high-drama music that, in certain ways, goes down like an old-school Hollywood score cut to fit the fast, ADD-inspired edits of modern television: think chase-scene drums against big-band orchestral statements, intensely unsettling a cappella drops and religious fervor at its most intense, all within a few bars... or at the same time."

-Q2 ALBUM OF THE WEEK, WQXR, "Kati Agócs's High-Drama Setting of Love and Devotion", 25 January 2016 (Hannis Brown)


"About 23 minutes long, The Debrecen Passion blends the voices into instruments, and the instrumentalists into the voices. Lorelei sings sections of starkly beautiful solo sections, duos and trios, but also vocalizes wordless melismas and dissonant pitches that challenge the mood. The orchestra performs many solos — flute, trumpet, snare drums and violin among them — but also chants some of the text alongside the singers......In the simplest way, everyone is a musician, serving the cause. Even if the texts were not in Hungarian, Latin or Georgian, textural clarity is not the object. Starkly simple and direct solo sections give way quickly to vocal overlaps and dense sonic textures — the meaning obscured in service of the musical goals.....Integrity in this case means that the accessibility of the lyrics is secondary to the sound-world. The feeling is religious, deeply spiritual; but it’s the sound that tells you this, not the words."

-WBUR'S THE ARTURY, "Composer-Performer Kati Agócs Intermingles Sacred and Secular in First Recording": Review of "The Debrecen Passion" by Boston Modern Orchestra Project, 21 January 2016 (Keith Powers


"Agócs typically assimilates several different cultural influences and multiple languages into her powerful and attention getting style. A perfect example is the amazing Debrecen Passion. Thematically centered on the work of contemporary Hungarian poet Szilárd Borbély and influenced by the particular qualities of the Hungarian language and culture, The Debrecen Passion takes Christian and humanist texts and utilizes them in a unique read of the Passion story but without the usual voices in roles. In many ways I found this approach both refreshingly different and quite moving. This is a strong, dramatic and, occasionally unsettling work."

-Audiophile Audition, Review of album The Debrecen Passion, 12 March 2016 (Daniel Coombs)