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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa