Daniel Reuss / Cappella Amsterdam / Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Frank Martin: Golgotha

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Frank Martin's 90-minute oratorio Golgotha, written just after the Second World War, is a monument of 20th century choral music, but because modern concert audiences aren't exactly clamoring for large-scale religious works and because of its demands both on its performing forces and listeners, it remains a piece that is not frequently performed. The subject of Golgotha was close to the composer's heart, and it reveals him at the height of his expressive powers. He approached it with full awareness of the towering influence of Bach's Passions, particularly the St. Matthew Passion, and Bach's presence is evident not only in its music but in its gravity and emotional depth. Particularly in the chorales, the music sounds like Baroque structures filtered through a disturbingly raw contemporary sensibility. The use of dissonance feels entirely appropriate to the material, though, giving the story a visceral urgency, and in the moments of repose Martin's vocabulary recalls the perfumed exoticism of Debussy's Le martyre de Saint Sébastian. This is music that relies more on subtly probing evolution than on high drama and spectacular outbursts. Martin builds tension not so much through the conventional means of increasing volume or rhythmic momentum as with his harmonic movement, which he deploys with great effectiveness in the finely calibrated buildup of psychological anxiety as Jesus inexorably moves through the Passion Week toward the Crucifixion. Daniel Reuss, who has conducted several of the composer's major works for Harmonia Mundi, leads the combined forces of Cappella Amsterdam, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, and Estonia Symphony Orchestra in a powerful but nuanced account of the score. The soloists are all exceptionally fine, particularly baritone Mattijs van de Woerd as Jesus. This is a release that should have strong appeal for fans of contemporary choral music.

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