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Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b. 1960)
La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) (2000)
Biella Da Costa (Latin-American alto)
Jessica Rivera (soprano)
Reynaldo González-Fernández (Afro-Caribbean vocalist)
Gioconda Cabrera (Afro-Caribbean vocalist)
Manolo Mairena (Afro-Cuban vocalist)
Alex Alvear (vocals)
Schola Cantorum de Venezuela
Orquesta La Pasión
Members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/María Guinand (CD) Robert Spano (DVD)
rec. CD: January 2007; November 2008, Edificio Centro Empresarial Polar, Caracas, Venezuela; November 2008, Heart Punch Studios, Boston, USA; December 2008, BiCoastal Music, Westchester, USA. DVD: 22 June 2008, Royal Carré Theatre, Amsterdam (Holland Festival). Libretto included
CD track listing at the end of this review
DVD Region: 0
Picture format: NTSC, 16:9
Sound: PCM stereo
Menu language: English
Subtitles: None
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 7461 CD: [84:27] [53:06 + 31:21] DVD: [87:37]


Experience Classicsonline

Take an Argentine composer of Jewish extraction, mix in the dance rhythms of Africa – by way of Brazil and Cuba – and you might just get a flavour of this extraordinary work. One of four Passion setting commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie to mark the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos has been rapturously received everywhere. Indeed, this is the second recording of the work – the world premiere was issued on Hänssler Classic 98404 – but DG have gone one better and included a bonus DVD of a live performance from the 2008 Holland Festival.
Another plus for DG is that both performances include members of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra who, along with maestro Dudamel, have endeared themselves to audiences the world over. I thoroughly enjoyed their BBC Prom concert in 2007 – not to mention Fiesta, their disc of South American music – and I’m sure DG are only too keen to promote these talented youngsters, conducted here by the work’s dedicatee, Maria Guinand (CD) and by the Atlanta Symphony’s music director Robert Spano (DVD).
So, without hearing a note of La Pasión según San Marcos it’s clearly as far from Bach’s Lutheran sensibilities as it’s possible to get. Golijov was able to start from a clean slate as it were, since the score of Bach’s St Mark Passion, premiered in Leipzig in 1731, is lost. One can only wonder what the venerable old organist would have made of the forces assembled here – choir, all-important percussionists, trumpets, trombones, guitars (including bass), piano, strings, Berimbau (a Brazilian instrument of African origin), vocalists and dancers.
La Pasión según San Marcos opens with a powerful rhythmic pulse that permeates the entire piece, plus baying brass and unsettling orchestral glissandi, before the chorus’s first entry. As Alan Rich points out in his admirable liner-notes, this is music of the streets, Mark’s first plaintive solo rising from this riotous mix in The Second Annunciation. It’s a highly individual vocal style, the rapid succession of short syllables creating a rhythm all of its own. It soon becomes clear that the role of Mark, the chronicler of these momentous events, is shared between the choir – a Greek chorus, if you like – and the soloists. It may seem like an odd conceit – Golijov also allocates other important roles to various soloists, often of different sex – but it works rather well.
The recording is very immediate, which makes the percussion and drums seem all the more hypnotic. The Anointment in Bethany is similarly mesmeric, the choir just marvellous as the questioning Apostles in the jabbing dance music of Why?This is music of great warmth and vitality, illuminated by flashes of instrumental colour – the accordion, for instance – and played with all the exuberance and sense of spectacle one could hope for. But there are meditative moments, too – just listen to the haunting instrumental Lucumi Prayer – Aria with Crickets. And who would have thought Judas, the great betrayer, would be blessed with music of such sway and sultriness in Judas and the Paschal Lamb?
I must admit that on first acquaintance this music struck me as somewhat unvaried, but subsequent auditions revealed more subtleties of rhythm and colour than I thought possible, given the forces involved. In particular, the different vocal styles and inflections help to create a collage of contrasting aural patterns. Nowhere is this more evident than in Judas’ sinuous aria, sung to a guttural string-driven flamenco tune, or in the pure loveliness of women’s voices and ecstatic soloist in The Eucharist. The latter, sung most beautifully by soprano Jessica Rivera, is a simple, deeply affecting number which, like the solemn sacrament itself, lies at the very heart of this extraordinary work.
And just when one might expect a flamboyant response, in the Psalm settings of We give thanks unto the Lord for example, Golijov surprises us with murmured chorus and muted drums that grow in volume and intensity before subsiding once more and paving the way for Mark’s unaccompanied solo in The Mount of Olives. And what a strange, otherworldly sound the women make in To Gethsemane, which contrasts with the lift and line of Jesus’ solo. In Agony, when Jesus is left alone as his disciples sleep, the opening guitar melodies are quietly reflective, soloists and chorus, now hushed now ecstatic, singing with tremendous focus and feeling.
They say the Devil has all the best tunes, and so it proves in Judas’s upbeat intro to The Arrest, while Christ’s arraignment before Caiaphas is despatched with all the heat and flamboyance of a Rio carnival. It’s an overwhelming display, sensibly recorded and balanced, which then modulates to the thrilling ostinati and scat-like solo of I Am (Confession). Golijov then changes tack by setting a Galician poem, Colorless Moon –Aria of Peter’s Tears, to music of rare simplicity and heart-piercing sorrow. Above bleached, dragging strings the soloist gives soaring voice to Peter’s lament. It’s one of the emotional and musical highpoints of a score that just grows in stature at each hearing.
There’s another kind of frisson in the strange choral caterwauling that accompanies Jesus’ appearance before Pilate. This, too, is music of real imagination and visceral intent. It makes the strongest possible contrast with the terrifying Silence, flamenco stamping, clapping and the sound of the cajón (box drum). It certainly helps to heighten the dramatic tension as we go into the agitated, almost martial music of Sentence, but then the composer throws another curve ball by turning the grim procession to Golgotha into a swaying, snaking carnival parade, complete with wild dissonances on the piano. Paradoxical as this may seem, Golijov’s musical and dramatic instincts are seldom wrong, as we hear in the shouts of the chorus and sharp, nail-driving beat of Crucifixion. Even Christ’s cries of ‘My God, my God’ (Elohi, elohi) are transformed into a pure, ululating lament over an urgent bass; it’s yet another of those startling epiphanies, of which the concluding Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) is the most eloquent. Over the rhythmic figures first heard at the outset of the Passion, the chorus and soloist sing with a remarkable blend of inward calm and outward radiance, the beat dying slowly at the last Amen. In any other hands this could so easily descend into mawkishness, but once again the composer’s musical and dramatic judgment are weighed and not found wanting. A remarkable coda to a truly remarkable work.
I imagine most listeners will buy this set for the audio rather than the video, but having listened to the CDs several times I was curious to see how it all works in the theatre. First off, there aren’t as many performers as I’d imagined, the simply attired chorus, instrumentalists and vocalists clustered together on what seems to be a fairly compact stage. The lighting is subdued, brightening only to highlight the singers and dancers at key points in the drama; colours are warm and vibrant, the picture pin-sharp. The camerawork isn’t too intrusive, cutting between shots of maestro Spano and selected groups of performers. Some of the latter look a bit tense, concentrating intently on the conductor’s beat. Which is just as well, given the rapid-fire delivery and cross-rhythms involved.
I was particularly curious to see how the dances are done. Capoeira dances, a mix of movement and music, were introduced to Brazil by African slaves. Deraldo Ferreira, the sole exponent here, makes his first appearance in the Dance of the Ensnared Fishermen. It’s all very literal, his slow dance accomplished under a net, but it works well enough. Later, in the Dance of the White Sheet, he performs what can best be described as a slow, rather balletic break dance routine.
The camera just loves soprano Jessica Rivera, and so will you after hearing her stratospheric singing in The Eucharist. I did wonder whether some echo had been added at the post-production stage, her voice – and that of the women – echoing as if in some long-forgotten cloister. Generally, though, I was very impressed by the quality of the PCM soundtrack on this DVD; it’s warm and detailed, with plenty of punch and decent perspectives. Some may wish for DTS or other surround options, but when vanilla stereo sounds this good who could ask for more?
Watching this performance, rather than just listening to it, makes one more keenly aware of the varying dynamics of what is essentially a theatrical piece, especially the way soloists and choruses interact. Mark acts and dances in Face to Face and in the Dance of the White Sheet the chorus moves to the music as well. In Scorn and denial the choir divide and face each other, suddenly transformed into a baying mob. And in Morning: Before Pilate they deliver what can only be described as the vocal equivalent of a ‘Mexican Wave’, their voices rising and falling to great effect.
Just before the drama peaks Christ in his crown of thorns is brought on to the Dance of the Holy Purple Robe. It’s a moment of high emotion, the act itself incorporated into Ferreira’s cool, methodical dance. It’s also a chilling counterpoint to the choral cries and cataclysmic drumming of Crucifixion, the intensity of which is almost too much to bear. Christ is then taken down and wrapped in a shroud, a powerful yet poignant presence as the closing prayer is sung. Not surprisingly, there is a long silence before the applause begins, members of the audience clearly overwhelmed by what they’ve just witnessed.
Indeed, only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be moved – and moved mightily – by this searing work. It’s a dramatic and musical triumph, and DG are to be commended for bringing it – and its talented composer – to a wider audience. Both performances are powerful and inspiring, and must surely be the benchmarks against which all future versions will be judged. I look forward to a performance here in the UK – a Prom would be ideal – but in the meantime I urge you to go out and buy this set. One critic has called La Pasión según San Marcos ‘the first undisputed masterpiece of the 21st century’; after living with these discs for several days I’m inclined to agree.
Dan Morgan

CD 1
Visión: Bautismo en la Cruz (Vision: Baptism on the Criss) [1:04]
Danza del Pescador Pescado (Dance of the Ensnared Fishermen) [0:52]
Primer Anuncio (First Annunciation) [3:55]
Segundo Anuncio (Second Annunciation) [2:02]
Tercer Anuncio: En Fiesta No (Third Annunciation: Not on the Feast Day) [0:57]
Dos Días (Two Days) [1:40]
Uncíon en Betania (The Anointment in Bethany) [1:11]
¿Por qué? (Why?) [4:00]
Oración Lucumí – Aria con Grillos (Lucumi Prayer – Aria with Crickets) [2:27]
El Primer Día (The First Day) [1:30]
Judas y El Cordero Pascual (Judas and the Paschal Lamb) [4:35]
Quisiera Yo Renegar – Aria de Judas (I wish to forswear – Judas’ aria) [2:49]
Eucaristía (The Eucharist) [3:52]
Demos Gracias al Señor (We give thanks unto the Lord) [5:14]
En el Monte de los Olivos (On the Mount of Olives) [1:06]
Cara a Cara (Face to Face) [1:11]
En Getsemaní (In Gethsemane) [2:04]
Agonía – Aria de Jesús (Agony – Jesus’ aria) [8:21]
Aresto – Danza Sabana Blanca (The Arrest – Dance of the White Sheet) [2:31]
Ante Caifás (Before Caiaphas) [1:45]
CD 2
Soy Yo – Confesión (I Am – Confession) [2:26]
Escarnio y Negación (Scorn and denial) [1:38]
Desgarro de la Túnica (Tearing of the garment) [0:55]
Lúa descolorida – Aria de las lágrimas de Pedro (Colorless Moon – Aria of Peter’s Tears) [5:44]
Amanecer: Ante Pilato (Morning: Before Pilate) [3:46]
Silencio (Silence) [1:48]
Sentencia (Sentence) [1:46]
Comparsa Al Gólgotha (To Golgotha) [3:36]
Crucifixión (Crucifixion) [1:55]
Muerte (Death) [1:06]
Kadish (Kaddish) [6:41]



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