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MacMillan, St John Passion (The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John):Christopher Maltman (baritone); Narrator Chorus; London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis. Barbican Hall, 27.4., 2008 (CC)

The premiere of a work by James MacMillan is always an event. A festival of his music back in 2005 (see my review)  gave an overview of his output, inviting into the programming composers such as John Casken and Harrison Birtwistle, and confirmed (for this writer, at least), the importance of the Confession of Isobel Gowdie in MacMaillan's oeuvre.

Christianity has long formed the bedrock of MacMillan's inspiration, if not his being. His 1993 Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross formed a significant step towards this full-scale St. John Passion which received its astonishingly assured World Premiere at this concert. It is scored for baritone soloist (Christus), chamber choir (which takes the narrator's words) and a larger chorus that takes the rest of the text. The orchestra omits harps and uses a smaller than might be expected percussion section, but includes a chamber organ.

Split into ten movements (the last of which is purely orchestral), the St John Passion lasts around 90 minutes, not including the interval. MacMillan takes English as his principal language, but interpolates sections of Latin. He claims cross-fertilisations between this work and his opera, The Sacrifice. The piece is dedicated to Sir Colin Davis.

The chamber choir is set stage right, with the full chorus behind the orchestra. MacMillan deploys his forces with obvious mastery, his experience shining through each bar. There are many moments of beauty here (not least the stasis-like string opening), some of great power (the opening of Part II), some gestures that are pure MacMillan (the wailing clarinets around Christus' assertion that, 'My Kingship is not of this world'; the sighing, keening phrases of the Narrator Chorus at the very opening of Part II, where Jesus is taken to Golgotha), and some gestures of near-filmic resonance (something I, certainly, had not been expecting – I refer to the opening of the section entitled, 'Jesus before Pilate'). There are even some intensely warm, Vaughan Williams-like cello chords, while the close of the piece hints at Mahler. As one listens, it is clear that MacMillan is a master of his wide vocabulary.

The problem is that the individual elements do not seem to add up to a greater whole. There is much overtly descriptive writing here, most clearly perhaps heard at the arrival of a military side-drum at the words, 'We have a law', but, despite an obvious overall structure, there was little sense of the vast here, little sense of the grand nature of the events described.

Christopher Maltman seemed to grow into his part, reaching his peak in the work's second part. Christus' lines are mainly of the florid type, and Maltman delivered them flawlessly. The problem seemed to be that he was, in the earlier sections, frequently rather quiet, heard from my seat in the balcony. I wondered whether this was deliberate, to make his part just one of several, but subsequent entries were far clearer (obviously I have had no opportunity to examine a score). The two choruses were simply astonishing. The Narrator Chorus in particular was extremely well rehearsed, as was the orchestra, whose assurance carried all before it. Davis steered the performance confidently.

There is no doubting that his was a memorable occasion, but there remains a feeling of some slight disappointment. Given MacMillan's closeness to religion, the St John Passion could have been expected to be the composer's Magnum Opus. It certainly is not that, but it remains a significant milestone nonetheless. A recording (LSO Live) will doubtless help us to further digest and evaluate this score.

Colin  Clarke

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