Osvaldo Golijov's St. Mark Passion runs on a river of ironies and upended expectations. After all, who would expect an Argentine Jew to write a piece based on the most Christian of all narratives, the account of Jesus' trial and crucifixion? Passions, of course, hold a place of honor within the European musical and religious tradition. That history, and the form's link to Bach in particular, cannot be forgotten; indeed, this passion, like three others (by Rihm, Tan Dun, and Gubaidulina) also commissioned by the Bach Akademie Stuttgart and conductor Helmuth Rilling, were meant to commemorate the year 2000 Bach anniversary.
Instead of aping these cultural paradigms, what Golijov does instead is totally reconstruct and reform the idea of the Passion. Structurally and emotionally, Golijov's Pasión plays out as a psychological drama rather than a strictly religious, or strictly linear, narrative. There's a strong hallucinatory element involved: no soloist or choral group is assigned a single role, so characters cross the pendulum between ultimate goodness to ultimate betrayal and back again without clear distinction. Musically, too, elements flow into each other without clear boundaries. Among Golijov's sources are European choral singing, African rhythms, and a variety of South American and Caribbean styles, including Argentine tango, Brazilian capoeira, and Cuban són. Most astonishingly, however, none of this feels forced. Instead, Golijov presents us with a thoughtful meditation not only on the Passion story, but also on what it means to be a 21st-century composer rooted in the music of three continents and nearly innumerable cultures.
Recorded live at the piece's premiere at Stuttgart's European Music Festival, this two-disc set gives a sense of the sheer drama of Golijov's work. Brazilian singer Luciana Souza, Cuban vocalist (and dancer) Reynaldo González Fernández, and the stellar Schola Cantorum de Carácas all give exemplary performancesnatural and idiomatic, and yet highly alert to the demands Golijov makes of them. An important recording, then, and one that deserves serious attention.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, ClassicsToday.com