Golijov is a perplexing composer. While an undeniable talent, and capable of much beautiful music making, he also exhibits a most distressing tendency to the routine and repetitious. If you buy into his aesthetic, hook, line, and sinker, you will undoubtedly love every moment of this album. But for some of us, only about 35 minutes will prove truly worthwhile.
The part that strikes me as more of the same is Oceana, a cantata based on poetry of Pablo Neruda taken from his Cantos Cermoniales (1961). Neruda’s poetry is often exotic, esoteric, and colorful, and Golijov certainly does his best to translate this feeling into his music. Brazilian Grammy-winning artist Luciana Souza, who spends much time in small jazz groups as well as big band and more popular types of endeavors, dives into Golijov’s Latin American passions with a fervor and almost religious ecstasy. For me the constant vamping of Golijov’s music here resembles too much a controlled jam session with choral interjections than a serious piece of music that can convey Neruda’s hothouse writing in more than a general, superficial manner. The music is static, and rarely moves anyplace beyond its own self-contained idiom, though it is divided into seven movements that are quite different in tone. This same kind of repetitious meandering is one of the things about his St. Mark Passion that rendered so much of it stagnant, and is something that the composer needs to avoid in the future so that he might not be accused of composing the same piece over and over again in every new work.
The other two works on this disc are something else altogether. Here we see the real genius of Golijov and why he enjoys so much acclaim. Tenebrae is a two movement threnody, a work about “pain seen from inside and from a distance.” The piece is simply gorgeous; his model was the Lamentations for the Tenebrae Service by Francois Couperin, thought the latter’s work lacks the sort of disquieting passion Golijov infuses into his piece. Kronos plays it very well, understanding fully what the composer is trying to do, and I find it remarkably moving.
Three Songs for soprano and orchestra was created for Dawn Upshaw, and was recorded at the same time as Golijov’s opera Ainadamar. I was at that recording session in Atlanta, and I can testify for a certainty that DGG recorded it in DSD, for the lead engineer Stephan Flock was telling Spano how spectacular Ainadamar sounded in that format. My disappointment was palpable when the opera was released in regular stereo. DGG had obviously decided at that point to greatly curtail its activities in the high-res audio realm, but I still have hope that they might release it again in the SACD format one day. These songs would also have been done the same way, but here they are also in plain stereo, though the sound is truly excellent. Upshaw eats these songs up, Night of the Flying Horses by Sally Porter, Colorless Moon by Rosalia de Castro, and How Slow the Wind by Emily Dickinson. The second in particular was adapted into his St. Mark Passion, and it is a tremendously moving work, sad and pathetic, though in C major! Spano and his Atlanta forces know this composer better than anyone, and you can tell.
So I must confess I am of two minds here. I adore a little over a half of this program, and will rarely return to Oceana. Golijov fans will snap this up no questions asked, but those new to the composer would be better off starting out with, in my opinion, his two finest discs, Ainadamar and Ayre, the latter also with Upshaw and coupled with an evocative Folk Songs by Luciana Berio. If you have these albums you might want to spring for this one, and who knows, you might like Oceana despite my protestations.
— Steven Ritter