Golijov: St. Mark Passion (CD/DVD review)

CD 1 and 2: Feature music with soloists and chorus, Orquesta La Pasion, Members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, Maria Guinand, conductor.
DVD: Feature music filmed live at the Holland Festival, 2008, Royal Carre Theatre, Amsterdam, Robert Spano, conductor. DG B0014008-00.

DG went all-out on this home release, not only spreading the music out over two CD's but providing a DVD of a live production as well, both recordings under different conductors. There is everything here but a 3-D Blu-ray presentation. I guess you could say DG think the music is worth the effort, although only listeners can determine that for themselves. Certainly, the music is lively, exciting, sometimes profound, and decidedly different.

So, who is Osvaldo Golijov and what's the music all about? Golijov is a Grammy-winning, Argentinean-born composer and professor of music who, in 2000, was one of four composers the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart commissioned to write new scores for the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They asked each composer to write music for a different one of the Gospels in the spirit of J.S. Bach, asking Golijov to do St. Mark. Thus, we have La Pasion segun San Marcos, the St. Mark Passion, which I understand audiences received with wild enthusiasm at its première. DG recorded both the studio version and the live production in 2008, presenting them both in this three-disc CD/DVD set.

The entire piece lasts about ninety minutes, and it covers Christ's life from His "vision" through His death, with the emphasis on His last days. Golijov evokes the "spirit" of Bach, but barely; he is mainly his own man in this music, and you'll find much warmth, joy, excitement, distress, and imagination involved, along with moments of outright eccentricity, Golijov setting the story in the streets of an unnamed Latin-American country, Brazil or Cuba. While the composer may have based the story and music on Mark's writing, it is not particularly "religious" as such but far more earthy and accessible. Indeed, to say the music is not of a conventional religious bent would be a monumental understatement. The work is assuredly not a preachy museum piece, far from it, nor should it offend either believers or nonbelievers in Christianity, expressing as it does a universal theme of eternal peace.

Compact Discs one and two contain the studio performance, with conductor Maria Guinand leading a team of soloists (Biella Da Costa, alto; Jessica Rivera, soprano; Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez, Gioconda Cabrera, Manolo Mairena, and Alex Alvear, vocals), the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, the Orquesta La Pasion, and members of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestre of Venezuela.

The predominant sounds are those of Latin percussives, something Bach might have appreciated if he had had a chance to hear them. The whole work is highly rhythmic, especially at the beginning where it is continuously pulsating with life. Frankly, it can be a little tiring, too, the Wife-O-Meter finding it a tad grating.

After a somewhat lengthy, sometimes raucous street scene, the tone changes, settling into a more pastoral, contemplative mood. From here, the music exhibits a wide variety of influences, with Jewish, Aramaic, and Latin-American elements interspersed with traditional Catholic liturgical underpinnings. The "Aria of Peter's Tears" in the final third of the music is particularly affecting.

The third disc is a DVD of the work in a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. In this production, filmed at the 2008 Holland Festival, conductor Robert Spano leads soloists Biella Da Costa, Jessica Rivera, Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez, and Deraldo Ferreira, the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, and the Orquesta La Pasion. On DVD the piece makes a more spectacular stage offering than the CD does merely listening to it, and I admit I enjoyed it a tad more being able to see it performed. Nevertheless, I found the whole affair rather overlong by a good thirty minutes, whether on CD or DVD, although the length may have been a condition of the original commission.

The compact discs exhibit a wide stereo spread but not much orchestral or choral depth. Voices seem too sharply etched at times and a bit too bright, while the accompanying instruments vary in sound from clear and natural to slightly muted. As befitting an album with an abundance of percussion, the transient response favors quick, well-defined impacts. By contrast, the DVD displays a greater depth of field and a more-realistic feeling of you-are-there ambience.

DG offer the set in a fancy, foldout Digipak edition with a Picasso painting on the cover ("Crucifixion," 1930), the package containing the three discs and a booklet insert.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa