For Frank Martin—the son of a Calvinist minister whose musical epiphany came at the age of 12, when he heard a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—a work like Golgotha was almost inevitable. Drawing on text from all four of the Gospels, plus the meditations of St. Augustine and snippets from Psalm 121 and I Corinthians, Golgotha is Martin’s response to the Passions of Bach. It is also a response to one of the most famous images of Calvary, Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses (1653), which Martin saw at an exhibition of that artist’s etchings in Geneva in 1945.
Martin said of Golgotha that it was an attempt “to represent the events as such.” Well, yes and no. Like Bach’s Passions, Golgotha uses soloists, chorus, and orchestra to tell the story of Christ’s final days, from the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion. Its architectural plan is splendidly rational: two parts of almost identical length, each consisting of five numbers or scenes, with the emotional trajectory of each part brilliantly realized. But Martin couldn’t keep his own deep spirituality from informing his work, any more than Bach could. The result is an intensely personal, and at times profoundly moving, involvement in the events of the Crucifixion. Far more than a representation, Golgotha is the Passion interiorized, and in Martin’s unique way. For this passion does not end with the entombment, as Bach’s do: the final number of Golgotha turns away to look toward the Resurrection...to show the light from above piercing the darkness, just as in Rembrandt’s etching.
Using a chromatic palette tinged with piquant dissonances, Martin gives most of the score a haunting “sepulchral” color. Chorus, orchestra, and organ are melded in dense contrapuntal textures without obscuring the words of the text, which are set syllabically in a manner reminiscent of Debussy (the absolute best model for setting French). Against this background the transfiguring shafts of light stand out all the more dramatically: the E major triad on the word “vie” (life) at the very end of the introductory chorus, the ecstatic “Hosannas” of the Palm Sunday chorus, and the radiant D major of the work’s conclusion.
Harmonia Mundi’s recording captures a reading of remarkable beauty and coherence. Much of the credit belongs to the Dutch-born conductor Daniel Reuss, who draws singing of the utmost commitment and polish from his non- French choral forces and is able to integrate it with inspired work from an outstanding quintet of vocal soloists and disciplined playing from the Estonian orchestra.
Kudos as well to Martin Sauer for producing a fine recording in a difficult space. The Estonian Concert Hall in Talinn is a small, narrow shoebox with lots of reflections from the flat bare walls around the stage and the sides of the hall. Ideal for the audience but tricky for recording, especially with large forces gathered on the stage. Here, the soloists are forward, very naturally balanced, and flattered by the reverb; it’s the chorus whose diction tends to sound a bit muddy. But if you find the right volume setting— for me, just a hair under the usual level— everything, including the sonorous Rieger Kloss organ, locks into place.