Notes and Editorial Reviews
Daniel Reuss, cond; Judith Gauthier (sop); Marianne Beate Kielland (alt); Adrian Thompson (ten); Mattijs van de Woerd (bar); Konstantin Wolff (bs); Cappella Amsterdam; Estonian P C Ch; Estonian National SO
HARMONIA MUNDI MHC 902056-57 (2 CDs: 94:24
Text and Translation)
Many composers have been inspired by works of visual art, but few more dramatically and completely than the Swiss Frank Martin (1890–1974). In 1945 he happened to see Rembrandt’s copper engravings
The Three Crosses
, and it directly led to this beautiful oratorio.
Martin has written about this score: “I endeavored to concentrate all light on the figure of Christ, and to leave every other person in the dark. As a result, I saw myself forced to leave out Peter’s denial. Only two figures stand opposite him: The High Priest and Pilate. … I sought out those passages from the different Gospels that seemed to be most vital and to correspond best to my goals. The result was seven scenes: The first depicts the entire of Christ into Jerusalem. … The second is reserved just for the sermon in the Temple. … The third depicts the Last Supper, while the fourth leads us to Gethsemane. There Jesus is arrested and this closes the first part of the oratorio. The second part depicts the trial of Christ by the Sanhedrin (fifth scene) and by Pilate (sixth scene), and then the scene at Golgotha (number seven).”
What he came up with is a mainly intimate score with moments of powerful drama, a score inspired to a degree by Bach’s
Saint Matthew Passion
Saint John Passion
. While Martin uses dissonance to underline tension and drama, this is mostly what would be described as harmonically conservative music.
There is a stillness, a serenity, and calmness to this music that requires concentration from the listener, and it takes a skilled performance to hold that attention. Much of the music is slow, and the qualities required in a performance include careful dynamic gradations, rhythmic firmness, and an understanding of the creation and release of tension. When there are dramatic outbursts, it is important that they are rendered in the context of the whole. Overdoing them would destroy the shape of the piece; underplaying them would minimize the needed contrast. “Jésus devant le Sandhédrin,” No. 7 in the score, is a good example of this kind of moment, and Reuss’s direction here seems a little sluggish.
This performance is certainly an adequate introduction to this beautiful and spiritual music, and the rich, warm recorded sound is a plus. Estonia’s strong historic choral tradition results in magnificent choral work, and there is a great deal of conviction in the music-making here. The solo singing is more than adequate as well, and I think this set is more than competitive with its rivals. However, I would also say that Marcello Viotti, on a Munich-based recording (Profil 4037), manages to ratchet up the intensity more convincingly. His tempos are consistently faster (he performs the work in 85 minutes instead of 94, a very significant difference), and his rhythms are crisper. That set, however, requires three discs, because it includes other works of Martin (
In terra pax
), and it also does not provide a text or translation. One needs the words to really listen to this piece. Also, the solo singing is better here.
Harmonia Mundi’s presentation is exemplary. The booklet has excellent trilingual notes (French, German, and English), decently translated, and full texts in all three languages as well. There are other recordings as well, one conducted by Alois Koch and one by Michel Corboz, both of which are decent representations of the score. Purely as a performance I would recommend Viotti’s Profil set, but because of the provision of text and translation, and the fact that this performance is certainly more than adequate, I would have to say that this new Harmonia Mundi release is the best way to get to know this wonderful score.
FANFARE: Henry Fogel
Works on This Recording
Golgotha by Frank Martin
Mattijs Van de Woerd (Baritone),
Adrian Thompson (Tenor),
Marianne Beate Kielland (Mezzo Soprano),
Judith Gauthier (Soprano),
Konstantin Wolff (Baritone)
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir,
Estonian National Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1945-1948; Switzerland
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