OSVALDO GOLIJOV: La Pasion segun San Marcos – Biella da Costa (Latin-American soprano)/ Jessica Rivera (soprano)/ Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez, Gioconda Cabrera, Manolo Mairena (Afro-Cuban vocalists)/ Alex Alvear (vocals)/ Schola Cantorum de Venezuela/ Orquesta la Pasion/ Members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/ Maria Guinand, conductor – DGG B0014008 (2 discs), CD: 84:32 *****:
DVD: Same forces/ Robert Spano, conductor/ Filmed Live at the Holland Festival 2008, 89:37 ***1/2:
My first exposure to the music of Osvaldo Golijov was his opera Ainadamar, where I was able to see a concert performance and then attend the DGG recording sessions the next day. It was clear that this composer was a new voice, and an important one, though a major marketing effort has seemed to typecast him somewhat since then. I was aware of his first major success, this Passion according to St. Mark, and of its origins. The International Bach Academy of Stuttgart commissioned it in the Bach year of 2000, four passions, with one on each gospel account by Golijov, Wolfgang Rihm, Tan Dun, and Sofia Gubaidulina. Of these four it is Golijov’s which has continued to attract the most attention, no doubt in part to the fervent advocacy of conductor Robert Spano.
Golijov, an Argentinean of Jewish descent, had to buy a New Testament in order to conceive this music, so I guess one could ask whether the story is in his bones the same way it was for Bach—probably not. His approach is going to be something non-traditional and even a little revolutionary in tone, and this proves the case. The work is urbane, sophisticated, and one gets the impression that the composer is slumming a little bit by his excessive use of “street music”—the street was never so organized as this. Perhaps that is the point—art, after all, uses its influences even unfairly at times, and Golijov has found a combination that seems to work well for him. Even Leonard Bernstein echoes throughout this work in its employment of tight, highly-concentrated jazz, albeit with a Latin flavor. One cannot really imagine this work had Bernstein’s theater piece Mass not seen the light of day. Bernstein’s contention that his work “is and is not, a real mass” equally applies in this case—it is, and is not a real passion.
The work is basically static—there is a succession of set pieces, sometimes dovetailing into one another, but they do not build in any traditional sense. Golijov also is rather short on memorable melodies in this work, far more dominated by vamp-like percussion sessions—some that go on too long—but he corrected this with Ainadamar, a work of considerable melodic beauty. There is melody here, but mostly subsumed into the dramatic thrust of the text without too much concern for set song, very improvisational in nature.
There is also a question about how universal this music can be. It is heavily Latin-oriented with segments of Afro-American jazz influence, but I notice that most of the performances use the same set of singers, making me wonder how easily transferred this music will be performance-wise; I can’t imagine a set of Holland choruses negotiating this music. Nevertheless, the proof is in the results of the recording, and one cannot fault the composer for writing music that is locale-specific. Many others have done the same.
On this release, the second of this work (the first on Hanssler Classics was well-received, though DGG seems to dismiss it a little in order to provide this revisit; Golijov is specific about this in the notes) we get two complete performances. One is a studio recording made in Venezuela, while the other is a live video of a Holland Festival performance conducted by Robert Spano. I enjoyed the video, though it is not of the highest quality, a relatively bland capture of a live event in okay color and good sound, but not state-of-the-art. Nevertheless it is important as the visual aspects of the work, like the dancers, have to be imagined otherwise. The recording is excellent; I do wish that DGG had released it on SACD (Ainadamar was recorded in hi-res but never released in this format) but no one will be disappointed in this very close, clean and clear recording. Indeed, there are important details that I hear in this studio version that are simply invisible on the filmed version. Spano is probably a little more dramatic and effective in Holland, but Maria Guinand, the conductor of the first version Hanssler, gives way but little.
I have given two ratings in case DGG decides to split this set apart in the future. La Pasion is not Ainadamar, and I have expressed the hope that Golijov will not end up as a composer who keeps recomposing himself. But it is a landmark work that will be even more important if this composer fulfills the expectations that so many have heaped upon him. This beautiful recording should help, and the Hanssler release is now supplanted.
— Steven Ritter