Classical downloading

Frank Martin's Passiontide oratorio Golgotha

James JollyThu 1st April 2010
Frank Martin's Golgotha from Harmonia MundiFrank Martin's Golgotha from Harmonia Mundi

A powerful retelling of the Easter story

Martin Cullingford’s Music for Holy Week blog got me thinking, and one work – very much "on-theme" – that I’ve been listening to a lot recently, in situ and on my iPod, is the new recording from Harmonia Mundi of Frank Martin’s Golgotha (eMusic and iTunes). It’s a big (90-minute) oratorio that has the sense of having been written in black and white, rather than colour – but there’s considerable detail in the darkness (it’s no surprise that Rembrandt's etching The Three Crosses, reproduced on the CD’s cover, inspired the work). 

I’ve long loved Martin’s re-telling of the Tristan and Isolde story, Le vin herbé, ever since hearing it on Radio 3 with verses by Hilaire Belloc interspersed to illuminate the narrative. I remember enthusing about the piece with Hyperion’s Ted Perry – who also adored the work and would have loved to have recorded it. Then along came a brand-new HM recording from the astounding RIAS Kammerchor under Daniel Reuss with a pretty impressive line-up of soloists in Sandrine Piau, Steve Davislim and Jutta Böhnert in the key roles of Iseut, Tristan and Braghien (eMusic and iTunes). It’s a sombre work too – Wagner's version is hardly a blast – but Martin here has opened the door a little wider and let in more light: I love the ritualistic feel and the work's slow but ineluctable tread. 

Daniel Reuss also takes charge of Golgotha, though with different forces (Capella Amsterdam, the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and Estonian National Symphony Orchestra). It tells the story of the events covering Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem to the crucifixion. And again ritual seems to infuse the work – the five soloists keep the narrative going and take the various roles in the Passion story. Textures are richer and more complex than in Le vin herbé (not surprisingly because Golgotha uses a full orchestra to Le vin herbé’s instrumental octet), and are capable of summoning up considerable power (just sample the work’s dramatic opening – which you can do on both eMusic and iTunes). Musically Martin looks West from his native Switzerland to the music of France: Debussy (and Pelléas et Mélisande in particular), Poulenc in his more reverent mood and even the ritualistic works of middle to late period Stravinsky. 

The spirit of Bach hovers over Golgotha, more in form and shape than in any particular sound, and draws from Martin some of his most powerful music. The fact that he wrote it without commission or any guarantee of performance merely adds to the sincerity of the work’s genesis. 

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