The Passion, Without Hyperbole

THE Swiss composer Frank Martin, who died at 84 in 1974, lived through the decades when pointless stylistic battles were waged within the field of contemporary music, and composers faced pressure to take sides. Martin never did. His detractors called him a conservative, which, in comparison with audacious modernists, he was.

Now that those fractious times are over, however, we can hear music from the mid-20th century in a fresher context and think less about where a particular composer fits into the progressive matrix. A remarkable new Harmonia Mundi recording of Martin’s ruminative and serenely sad “Golgotha” (HMC 902056.57; two CDs), a 95-minute oratorio about the Passion and death of Jesus, should win Martin new admirers.

Though his best known works are probably the “Petite Symphonie Concertante” and the secular oratorio “Le Vin Herbé,” based on the Tristan legend, “Golgotha” may be Martin’s masterpiece. It is hard to imagine a better performance than this sensitive and elegant account with the Dutch conductor Daniel Reuss leading the Cappella Amsterdam, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and an impressive roster of vocal soloists.

Martin, born in Geneva, was the 10th and youngest child of a Calvinist minister. In 1945, by then a respected composer, he was profoundly moved by seeing Rembrandt’s etching “The Three Crosses,” which depicts, in several scenes, Jesus and the two thieves being crucified. It inspired him to write his own version of a Passion oratorio, which he finished in 1948. For his French text he combined all four of the Gospels, interspersing the biblical excerpts with writings of St. Augustine.

Martin tells the Passion story but does not tell listeners what to think or feel by resorting to dramatically graphic music. A bittersweet, contemplative melancholy pervades the score, which moves almost continually at a calm pace. The opening chorus, with words taken from the “Confessions” of St. Augustine, sets the mood for the entire work.

The chorus sings three aching yet unforced cries of “Père!,” answered each time by weary melodic fragments in the slowly churning orchestra. The reference to the opening of Bach’s “St. John Passion” is obvious. But Martin gives us a biblical meditation rather than a musical drama in the manner of Bach, who alternated passages of urgent recitative and choral outbursts with reflective arias and chorales.

Specific elements of this elaborate work reveal Martin’s compositional skill and mastery of orchestral coloring. His harmonic writing is wondrous. Martin explored 12-tone techniques, adapting what intrigued him but in his own very free way. And Expressionist chromatic harmony was not for him: he cared too much about keeping chords, however thick, lucid and penetrating. His love of Renaissance music comes through in his use of modal harmony, which gives “Golgotha” an air of ancient mysticism.

Often in “Golgotha” the chorus and orchestra break into a dense, pungent sustained chord. But as the blur of notes is prolonged, the elemental harmony within comes into relief, the musical equivalent of focusing a camera lens.

The work’s 10 tableaus are grouped into two parts. Whole stretches of the score evolve without a trace of overt theatricality, just pensive choral writing interspersed with solo voices in music that values unhurried elegance and precision. Even in moments of agitated sorrow — as in the opening chorus of Part 2, telling of Jesus’ arrest — the restraint enhances the music’s tragic grandeur.

Judith Gauthier, soprano; Marianne Beate Kielland, alto; Adrian Thompson, tenor; Mattijs van de Woerd, baritone; and Konstantin Wolff, bass, are the fine soloists in this valuable new recording.