F. Martin, Golgotha, Cappella Amsterdam, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, D. Reuss
(released on April 13, 2010)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902056.57
The opening howl of this intense, but gloomy and somewhat moodily subdued piece -- "Père! Père! Père!" (a passage taken from Confessions) -- seems filled with the uncertainty that there is any father there to take the call. Indeed, the pairing of excerpts from the four Gospel accounts of the Passion -- and not always the ones you would expect -- with meditations by that great unbeliever turned Doctor of the Church (Augustine, one of my favorite theologians) focuses the drama less on Christ's suffering than on the travails of the doubting believer. In one of the more moving juxtapositions that illustrate this point, the shouts of "Christ! Christ!" of the chorus in the seventh tableau, Jesus before the Sanhedrin, become the opening of an excerpt ("Christ! Christ!") from Augustine ("It is my guilt that causes all your suffering"). The climax of the work to my ears is the sixth tableau, which features the alto solo (here the warm voice of Marianne Beate Kielland) as a lost soul yearning to find God but unable to do so. Against a gently oscillating instrumental fabric, the quietly intense bassoon solo going high enough to trick the ears into thinking it is an English horn, a disembodied chorus intones verses from Psalm 120 (121), like help from above that goes largely unheeded.
The somber instrumental scoring and simple homophonic choral writing give a quasi-monastic austerity to the spirit of inward reflection. The way the sound is captured in this excellent recording (made in Tallinn's Estonia Concert Hall last April) reinforces the sense of what Martin was trying to imitate in the Rembrandt etchings, a world engulfed in darkness. The choirs, a combination of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Reuss's Cappella Amsterdam, sings with intensity and well-balanced ensemble. Although there are some of the thrilling moments you would expect from a large-scale choral and orchestral work, the piece is far from theatrical and may not instantly appeal to every listener. The five soloists take turns in the role of evangelist and the various characters in the Gospel narrative, again adding to the sense of individual rumination of a story more than a drama to be watched. The only minor reservation to note is that there is something odd about the way the baritone soloist, Mattijs van de Woerd, was miked: it sounds too close to the voice, especially during the extended solo of the third tableau, which does not leave the listener with the most flattering picture of a fine singer.