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3.5.10

'Golgotha'

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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
94'28"


Online preview
Frank Martin (1890-1974) is one of those lesser-name composers Ionarts loves to champion. In particular, he is the creator of some of the most moving sacred music of the 20th century: more traditionally Christian works like the Mass for Double Choir, Le Mystère de la Nativité, the In terra pax, and the late Requiem Mass surely merit a place alongside Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, Britten's War Requiem, settings of the Requiem Mass by György Ligeti, and Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise. These are all works that, on one hand, make reference to the august tradition of Christian liturgical music but, on the other, are unmistakably modern in how they incarnate doubt as much as faith, a distinctly 20th-century attitude. Martin, in spite of a Calvinist upbringing and a lifelong devotion to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, remained mostly an agnostic doubter until a late-in-life reconversion. He came to an understanding of the subject matter of his oratorio Golgotha, released last month in a new recording led by Daniel Reuss, through a process more aesthetic than spiritual, attempting to recreate in music the mood and complexity of Rembrandt's etchings of The Three Crosses.

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.

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2 comments:

Michael Lodico said...

I met Frank Martin's wife after a service at the Waalse Kerk one Sunday in Amsterdam. She is very kind.

Charles T. Downey said...

Michael, did you ever go to see Martin's house in Naarden? I understand that Mme Martin gives tours of a floor kept exactly as the composer kept it.

http://www.frankmartin.org/eng/eng_huis.html