Osvaldo Golijov refers to the initial recording of his La Pasión según San Marcos, taken from a live performance of its first production in 2000, as merely "a snapshot," in contrast with Deutsche Grammophon's beautifully engineered 2010 release, which captures the diverse textures of the work's many layers with sparkling clarity. The composer also writes that now that the piece has had a performance history of almost a decade, performers can bring a mature understanding to it without sacrificing its visceral punch. This release is special, too, because it includes two different performances of La Pasión, a DVD from the 2008 Holland Festival, with almost all the same performers (except that Robert Spano replaces María Guinand as conductor), in addition to the CDs.
Musically, the piece departs drastically from any other passion setting, in Golijov's unique combination of a variety of traditions of Latin American and African singing and drumming, almost entirely undergirded by powerful rhythmic ostinatos, and pulled together with sophisticated postmodern compositional techniques. While it follows the standard passion narrative, it's dramatically unconventional, too, because the various roles, including the narrator, Jesus, Peter, Judas, Pilate, and the crowd, are not associated with a particular singer or group. For example, Jesus' part is sometimes taken by a soloist, sometimes a group of soloists, sometimes a women's chorus, and sometimes a mixed chorus. The effect, surprisingly, is not chaotic, but organic, because it's driven by an inarguable musical logic.
The performances are terrific, from the many small but integral percussion parts to the formidable chorus, Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, which has the bulk of the responsibility for carrying the music. The vocal soloists are all exemplary, and the leads, Biella Da Costa, Jessica Rivera, and Reynaldo González-Fernandez, are outstanding. María Guinand, to whom the work is dedicated, leads the massive forces with crisp precision and enormous vitality. In every way, this version supersedes the original recording and should prove irresistible to anyone who loves the piece.
The DVD performance is in every way as fine as the CD and features most of the same artists. Although this is essentially a film of a concert piece, not a staged dramatic work, the visual element provides significant insights into the work as a populist spectacle. Overall, the DVD, more than the CD, offers an acute sense of how foreign Golijov's Pasion is to the sensibilities of Western concert music. Not only in its musical styles, but in its basic structure -- the choice of which elements of the story are put in the foreground and which in the background; the dramatic pacing; the democratic use of ensemble members in central and strategic roles; and in the way the emotional tone of the music reflects or contradicts the dramatic situation -- the piece avoids, or more likely, simply ignores, the conventions of a Western classical concert work. Many of the soloists come from the chorus and some have parts as musically and dramatically significant as the named soloists. Members of the instrumental ensemble, particularly the percussionists, take on central importance, something that is less obvious in a purely audio recording. The soloists who serve as narrator, particularly Afro-Cuban vocalist and dancer González-Fernandez, are simply mesmerizing in their animated accounts of the events of the passion story. These are spellbinding performances of a work that deserves the attention of anyone with an interest in new music. Highly recommended.