FRANK MARTIN: Golgotha – Judith Gauthier, soprano/ Marianne Beate Kielland, alto/ Adrian Thompson, tenor/ Mattijs van de Woerd, baritone/ Konstantin Wolff, bass/ Cappella Amsterdam/ Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir/ Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/ Daniel Reuss, conductor – Harmonia mundi 902056.57 (2 CDs), 94:28 *****:
Golgotha may be Martin’s crowing achievement—it is certainly at the top of the list for his choral works. Rembrandt’s engraving The Three Crosses (1653) inspired the composer to compose this oratorio, a very subtle and intimately dramatic piece that was conceived at the end of WWII as a sort of catharsis. Martin had never paid much attention to liturgical or sacred music, but had always been haunted by the passions of Bach; indeed the first movement of Golgotha is an obvious direct tribute to the St. John Passion, and there are allusions to Bach throughout this work. This oratorio is in effect Martin’s passion.
The piece is scored brilliantly, Martin’s command of the choral art supreme, and orchestrally he is also luminous, never overwhelming the choral forces, and able to blend the color of the orchestra with the various tonal qualities of the chorus. There are no narrators here per se with the exception of Jesus himself, the other soloists simply designated as “solo alto”, etc., so we do not get any dialogue the way the passions are set up. And the extra-biblical commentary is set to texts of St. Augustine of Hippo, his Confessions and Meditations. Martin draws on all four gospels and seeks to present the story from the entry into Jerusalem to the Resurrection as directly as possible.
This opus is divided into two almost-equal parts, Introduction, The Branches, Jesus in the Temple, The Last Supper, and Gethsemane comprising the first, while the second has Meditation, Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Jesus before Pilate (with some extraordinary dramatic music), Calvary, and Resurrection. There is not a dull moment in the work, and its current five available recordings surely indicate that conductors, audiences, and record companies don’t know what they are missing.
The Corboz and Koch recordings have led the pack so far, but this new HM issue is heads and tails the best now available, the one we have been waiting for. Choral, orchestral, and solo voices are all first-rate, while the sound is spacious and broad, though the SACD treatment truly would have made this one for the ages, and the oratorio is certainly geared to it. Easily one of the best releases of the year, of no little importance.
— Steven Ritter