Daniel Reuss; Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir; Cappella Amsterdam
Judith Gauthier (sop.); Marianne Beate Kielland (alto)
Adrian Thompson (ten.)
Mattijs van de Woerd (bar.); Konstantin Wolff (bass)
(Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57; 90 min.)
Each year, as Easter approaches, I try to find one new recording of music for Holy Week to add to my collection. Last year it was James MacMillan’s St. John Passion, an ambitious and searingly intense but ultimately (in my judgment) flawed piece. This year I was circling around Frank Martin’s Golgotha, but was unable to decide between the various second-rate recordings that seemed to be the only ones available. I was delighted, therefore, when I saw that Harmonia Mundi had slated this superb recording for a Lenten release date; it came at just the right time.
Frank Martin was a Swiss composer, the son of a Calvinist preacher, and he wrote several important compositions on sacred themes during his life, including what is probably his most well-known piece, the Mass for Double Choir. Like the Mass, Golgotha was written privately, without a commission, as a personal expression of faith, and Martin apparently never expected it to receive a public performance. Throughout his life Martin lived in creative contact with the music of Bach, and in Golgotha, rather than trying to fight his predecessor’s influence, he adopted an oratorio format that is reminiscent of Bach’s Passions: passages from the Gospels are set verbatim, as dramatic dialogues, and are separated by passages of reflection and commentary on the story. In Golgotha these passages of reflection are drawn principally from the writings of St. Augustine, with lesser contributions from the Psalms and liturgical texts. Unlike Bach’s Passions, which end when Christ is laid in the tomb, Golgotha‘s final section is a tumult of joy in celebration of the Resurrection.
It is a large-scale composition, lasting about 90 minutes, and scored for orchestra, organ, large choir, and five vocal soloists. The music is richly evocative, at times pared down to a bare texture of voice and unadorned strings or organ, and at times building to thunderous, swelling climaxes. It has surprised me with its great beauty, and by the way in which it manages the difficult task of being dramatic without losing its contemplative spirit. Inspired by Rembrandt’s sketch that adorns the cover of this CD, Martin said that he “sought to concentrate all the light on the person of Christ”. The writing is attentive and responsive to the meaning of the texts, and the style of declamation used in the narrative sections reminded me of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, or of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. The choral sections — almost always the highlight for me — are beautifully written; Martin often combines a Bach-inspired contrapuntal texture with the soft, colourful orchestral palate that is so characteristic of twentieth-century French music, and the result is very effective.
The performances here are as good as could be desired. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir remains, under their new director Daniel Reuss, one of the best choirs in the world. All of the vocal soloists are new to me, but they sing very well, and the soprano, Judith Gauthier, particularly impressed me. The sound, as we have grown to expect from Harmonia Mundi, is clear and vivid, and the packaging is posh. This is an all-around success.
Excerpts from Golgotha can be heard at eMusic. Despite the fact that I have an eMusic subscription, I bought a physical copy of this CD in order to have the texts and translations, and I am glad that I did.