CD: Biella Da Costa, Latin-American alto; Jessica Rivera, soprano; Reynaldo González-Fernandez, Afro-Cuban vocalist; other vocalists; Maria Guinand conducting the ScholaCantorum de Venezuela, Orquesta La Pasión, and Members of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela (studio recording, 2008)
DVD: Robert Spano conducting the same forces, minus the Youth Orchestra members (live performance, Amsterdam, 22 June 2008)
Review By Joe Milicia
La Pasiónsegun San Marcos was the work that did most to launch Osvaldo Golijov's international career, following its sensational debut in 2000. Commissioned by the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach (they also invited Wolfgang Rihm, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Tan Dun to write Passion oratorios based on the other three Gospels), it received overwhelming acclaim from both audiences and critics, not only for the music itself but for the enraptured performance of the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, conducted by its artistic director, Maria Guinand. (Golijov dedicated the work to them.) A performance in Boston led by Robert Spano, with the original forces supplemented by members of the BSO, introduced the work to the U.S., and was followed by additional performances around the country. A recording for the Hännsler label, still available, documented the world premiere.
Now DG has issued a new recording of this 84” work, the latest in their Golijov series, with some important replacements among the vocal soloists but with the same Schola Cantorum and what I assume is a chosen-for-the-occasion group of players called Orquestra La Pasión. More precisely, the package contains two performances from 2008: a 2-CD studio recording with Guinand and a DVD of a Holland Festival concert with Spano (who, not incidentally, has led performances of numerous other Golijov works in the DG series).
Some general description of the piece is in order. The Romanian-Jewish Argentine composer, now a longtime U.S. resident, has drawn upon the musical and cultural traditions of Latin America — particularly Cuba and Brazil, with their strong African connections — to dramatize the Passion of Jesus as told by Mark's Gospel. The European oratorio tradition of telling the story in song through an orchestra-supported chorus and soloists serves as the foundation for a variety of Afro-Latin Pop and Folk styles in both the instrumentation (especially percussion) and the vocal delivery, which is mostly in Spanish. The words of Jesus, Judas, Peter, the crowd, and Mark the narrator are sung sometimes by the chorus, sometimes by soloists, mainly female, as the dramatic occasion calls for. The score is divided into 34 sections but flows continuously. At certain places in the score, the words of the Book of Mark are supplemented by poems or adaptations of traditional songs: for example, an aria of Peter's regret over having denied Jesus is sung to the text of a Galician poem by Rosalia da Castro, and the concluding solo with chorus is a Kaddish, with the words of Jeremiah's Lamentation sung in Latin and some final words of blessing in Aramaic. The overall idea is to present the Passion as a ritual, even as a Paschal street procession, with the tremendous power that can come from using a vernacular language and popular musical idiom.
This is not an entirely new approach to a religious text, of course. Golijov's fellow Argentine Ariel Ramirez premiered his hugely popular Misa Criolla in 1964, and Leonard Bernstein's more jarringly eclectic, not to mention controversial, Mass dates from 1971. Jesus Christ Superstar (1970) and Godspell (1971) could be cited as well, and from another direction Igor Stravinsky's percussive, ritualistic folk-marriage ballet of 1923, Les Noces, serves as another forerunner. But none of this is to deny the power and beauty of Golijov's score, not to mention its skilled contrasts of dramatic mood, from Judas' despairing lament to the crowd's cruel taunting of Jesus, and many passages that are tender and even joyous.
DG's two performances supplement each other very well in that the CDs have much superior sound — really spectacularly good — but the DVD allows us to see the theatrical commitment of the soloists and chorus, along with some choreography during instrumental passages that Golijov evidently sees as integral to the work.
Was a new recording of La Pasión needed, with the Hännsler set still available? Golijov's remarks on DG's website are worth quoting at some length: the piece “has evolved from a wild beast into a coherent being; into something that is still powerful but in a more self-assured way. The important thing in doing this new recording was to show the stage of maturity the piece has reached. The [new] recording is radically different [because] we know how to record all this vast array of percussion that was a blur in the first recording but now creates this rainbow of shifting colors. We also know how to record the many layers of the voices. We can really have a clear picture of what this piece is, as opposed to just a snapshot which is what we had ten years ago. Also, the performance is different. It is still visceral but grown-up. It is a piece that already exists. It is a presence; it is an entity in the world."
Listeners must decide for themselves whether or not there is something contradictory about creating a polished or even magisterial performance of a piece originally intended to have the raw excitement of a street festival or procession. Though some may find a greater energy in the Hännsler recording, I personally found the new CD performance quite thrilling. A comparison between the Hännsler and DG sets is downright startling in terms of how superior the new recording is in clarity and color, the vivid presence and stereo location of each voice and instrument — even if the studio performance is slightly less propulsive or edgy than the live recording in 2000. I do have to add that Luciana Souza in 2000 is incomparably powerful in her vocal solos, though Biella da Costa on DG — billed as “Latin-American alto” in the packaging but as “Jazz Vocalist“ in the DVD credits — is very fine, with dramatic flair and great musical sensitivity to the text. Praise is in order too for the heavenly-sweet soprano solos of Jessica Rivera on the new CDs, the more Latin-pop-styled “Afro-Cuban vocalist” (and dancer on the DVD) Reynaldo Gonzalez-Fernandez, and a large number of solo singers who step down from the Schola Cantorum.
As for the DVD, the sound is not bad, but a direct A/B comparison reveals the striking superiority of the CDs. There is a certain sense of a hollow performing space on the DVD — appropriately realistic for a live recording in a concert hall, to be sure — and less vivid presence of voices and instruments. As for dramatic intensity, I'd give a slight edge to the CDs. But I wouldn't want to give up the DVD, since this work needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Not because of the dance elements, which I found to be a dispensable part of the experience (though I might have felt differently with camera work concentrating more on it). More important, the Schola Cantorum doesn't merely stand and sing the notes: their extremely expressive body language and faces enact the Passion play in ways that add tremendously to the drama. Moreover, in some passages, what might sound simply like an upbeat Latin dance procession is revealed to have striking dramatic complexity when seen in performance; I'm thinking of the early scene when the Apostles express disapproval of the Woman of Bethany's “wasting” precious ointment on Jesus, and later when the crowd seems to both mock and worship Jesus on the way to the crucifixion.
The video direction is annoying in a few places where the cutting and camera movement seem perfectly arbitrary, as if fearful that the home audience will get restless. But often we do get to see a soloist sing an especially expressive passage at length, and get invaluable glimpses of the huge array of percussion instruments and the variety of folk guitars that Aquiles Baez uses to accompany singers in more intimate moments. It's nice too from time to time to have the camera on Robert Spano, who can be pretty expressive himself — and above all, to the see the faces of the astounding chorus. It's too bad, however, that shots of the solo bows — including unidentified bows by the composer and Maria Guinand — are pretty much fudged, while one camera is doting upon a woman and her entourage in the audience. At the very end, a title states that Her Royal Highness Princess Maxima of the Netherlands was bestowing her presence upon the occasion.
Overall, I would not dispense with either the CDs or the DVD. However, buyers should be aware that DG is charging a goodly amount for the package, and might for that price have been much more generous in providing information. The DVD performance lacks subtitles — a fact that is rubbed in by occasional glimpses of the supertitles device over the performers, for the enlightenment of the live audience. The CD booklet does provide the full text and English translation, plus a helpful short essay by Alan Rich, but both the booklet and the DVD fail to identify which soloists are singing which parts in a given section. Moreover, the booklet contains no biographical information whatever on the outstanding soloists, the superb ScholaCantorum of Venezuela, Guinand (or Spano), or the Orquestra La Pasión, which includes important drum, guitar, accordion, piano and double bass soloists. The Hännsler booklet, while lacking DG's list of the individual names of the chorus and orchestra and hardly better in identifying solos, does supply biographies of Souza, González-Fernandez, the Schola and Guinand, along with interesting details like the fact that Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the St. Lawrence Quartet and an old friend of Golijov, was the leader of the strings in the Hännsler performance and, we can note, also in the DVD performance though not on the new CDs.