Notes and Editorial Reviews
When you consider that before Matthias Bamert's mid-90s survey of Frank Martin's orchestral music (on five discs from Chandos) its representation in the catalogs was rather spotty, it's surprising how well his larger choral works have done on CD, largely thanks to the Swiss label Cascavelle. Now, in the year that sees the 25th anniversary of Martin's death, Hänssler Classics becomes a most welcome participant in the Martin revival, with this resplendent recording of his dark and powerful Easter oratorio Golgotha (1945-48).
Oratorios and cantatas form a larger proportion of Martin's output than in probably any other major 20th-century composer (other than those actively involved in the production of religious music, so folk like Perosi don't count): His faith meant a good deal to him—so much so that his early unaccompanied Mass was intended as a private matter between himself and his god—and it produced an urgent sincerity that informs all his music, not only those pieces with explicitly religious intent. Martin's musical means share a central concern with the works of Shostakovich: a reconciliation of 12-tone method with the harmonic purpose of classical tonality. His music thus marries the bar-to-bar tension of dodecaphony with an overarching sense of direction that the strict 12-noters lack: One always feels with Martin's music that it knows exactly where it is heading. There's another marriage enacted here, too: Martin's harmony has a French flavor to it (the opening textures of Golgotha suggest the choral music of Poulenc, for example), but the sense of solid structure is German—Martin's Swiss nationality gave him a vantage point into both cultures. The music that results from these several strands is fantastically exciting: Though Golgotha has the epic cast of an oratorio, there are moments when it reaches an almost operatic intensity.
This recording is of a live performance given in Vienna in March last year, which explains the moments when the ensemble isn't quite perfect and the odd climax when you can hear the choirs straining to make the pitch; and though there are spots that the soloists would have retaken in studio conditions, it's never nearly enough to upset your concentration on the music. There are also a couple of passages where the recorded sound is congested, though, oddly, it's not at the point of maximum volume. The booklet reproduces an essay by Martin himself on the stimulus behind the composition of the piece and his approach to the task; Hänssler might usefully have complemented it with a more analytical text by someone who could shout a little more loudly about his achievement than Martin ever did. In any event, this is a release to be joyful about, and I recommend it very strongly: Martin's was one of the most lucid voices in 20th-century music, and it deserves to be very much better known than it is.
-- Martin Anderson, FANFARE [11/1999]