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James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
St. John Passion (2008) [90:20]
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis
rec. ‘live’ April 2008, Barbican Centre, London. DSD
Text included
LSO LIVE LSO0671 [54:14 + 36:06]
Experience Classicsonline

In 2005 I was hugely impressed by a recording of James MacMillan’s 1993 piece Seven Last Words from the Cross (see review). That work, which I am convinced merits the description “masterpiece”, is not the only piece by MacMillan that is inspired by the events of Holy Week. His orchestral triptych, Triduum (1996-97) also has its roots in the Passion and Death of Christ. Now MacMillan, whose committed Catholic faith informs his whole outlook on life and music, has taken what, as he says in his booklet note, was the logical step and has composed a setting of one of the Passion gospels.
 
The work was commissioned by the LSO and is dedicated to Sir Colin Davis in celebration of his eightieth birthday. This live recording was made at the time of the work’s première a year ago.
 
The new Passion setting is on an altogether bigger scale than Seven Last Words from the Cross. The earlier work is much shorter and is scored for chorus and a small string orchestra. To tell the Passion story MacMillan employs much larger forces, including a solo baritone, a full choir, a semi-chorus and a large orchestra. Each element of the vocal forces has a specific role. The baritone sings the words of Christ. The semi-chorus takes the Gospel narration and the main choir sings the remaining text, including the words of other characters in the drama, such as Pilate. It also functions as the crowd. The orchestra illustrates, punctuates and accompanies the text with great vividness.
 
The music for the narration by the semi-chorus is evidently influenced by plainchant, though the musical vocabulary goes a long way further than chant. The writing for the main chorus is very powerful and dramatic. In particular MacMillan’s writing conjures up the baying mob with terrifying reality.
 
His use of the orchestra is stunning in its virtuosity. Brass and percussion, in particular, are deployed in a hugely imaginative way. The score teems with detail yet there’s not a single redundant note. As the drama builds some of the orchestral contributions are terrifying in their intensity.
 
Christopher Maltman is quite superb as Christ. MacMillan portrays Christ in a most vivid, earthy way. This is a real man, undergoing not just unimaginable physical torment but also the suffering of betrayal. Some of these betrayals are well known through the Passion gospel – the betrayal by Judas and also the betrayal through Peter’s thrice-repeated denial. But MacMillan takes things one stage further in the eighth of the work’s ten sections. Here he departs from the gospel narrative and as Christ hangs on the cross he sings the Reproaches, which form part of the Good Friday liturgy in the Catholic tradition, (“My people, what have I done to you?”) with the crowd/chorus singing the responses (“Hagios o Theos” …) This may be a departure from the Gospel text but its inclusion is a dramatic master-stroke for it underlines graphically the uncomprehending rejection by the Jews – or at least, by some of them – of the long-awaited Messiah. Here, and elsewhere in the score, Maltman’s delivery of a hugely demanding part, which is operatic in style and dimension, is beyond praise. His is a riveting performance, which commands our attention – and our compassion – from the start. 
 
Sir Colin Davis, the dedicatee, leads a performance of great power and intensity. We know of old his mastery in handling large forces, such as those deployed by Berlioz, and that he is adept in presenting complex contemporary scores such as those of Tippett. Here he unites these strands in what will probably come to be seen as one of his finest recorded achievements.
 
MacMillan casts his Passion setting in ten sections. Apart from the last one, each depicts an episode in the Passion drama. The narrative is in English but to each of the first nine sections the composer appends a short Latin text sung by the main choir, each of which is relevant to the section in question. These passages fulfil the function of a commentary or meditation on the section of the narrative in question. MacMillan says of them that each “takes something of the general theme and development of the story, and allows time for a more objective and detached reflection.” Though he doesn’t say so, it seems clear to me that these passages fulfil a similar function to the chorales in Bach’s Passions.
 
Section One deals with the arrest of Jesus. The music starts quietly, even innocuously, but that mood is shattered by the mob’s first shout “Jesus of Nazareth”, though even
this outburst is followed by an innocent, pastoral melody on the flute. The choral meditation at the end of the section sets the words used by Christ at the Last Supper when instituting the Eucharist. MacMillan’s music here is hugely powerful, including writing for the brass heavy with darkness and foreboding and glistening decoration in the upper reaches of the orchestra.  For the second section we move to the appearance of Jesus before the High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas, followed by Peter’s disavowal of Jesus. It’s noticeable that MacMillan now starts to use the instruments, including, at this point, baleful woodwind, to illustrate the semi-chorus’s narration much more actively. Indeed, as the work develops he skilfully varies the nature of the narration, while never leaving behind its roots in plainchant. During this movement also the writing for the main chorus and for the orchestra becomes increasingly impassioned. One feature that caught my ear is the nature of the music for the words of Christ. When we get to Christ’s response to the false accusations against him (“I have spoken openly to the world”) there’s a discernable note of defiance. This is no “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” but one who mounts a proper self-defence. Peter’s thrice-repeated denials occur during this passage. However, despite his disavowal MacMillan chooses to end the section with the chorus singing the earlier words of Christ, “Tu es Petrus” (“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”) We know that Peter is not condemned for his moments of frailty.
 
Section three is by far the longest section, running for nearly 25 minutes. In rivetingly dramatic music Jesus’ appearance before Pilate is depicted. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the work, MacMillan’s significant experience as an operatic composer comes to the fore. Indeed, the Passion was written immediately after he’d completed his opera The Sacrifice and he confirms that the opera had a direct bearing on the Passion composition, even to the extent that “some of the opera music has drifted quite naturally into the new sphere.”
 
This whole section contains visceral, graphic music and that begins right at the outset with a hugely dramatic gesture on brass and percussion. The subsequent music for choir and orchestra is at times literally frightening. In places the music is frenzied – but it’s never over the top. Every gesture is controlled, enhancing and illuminating the drama in a supremely effective way. The LSO Chorus sings with biting assurance while their colleagues in the orchestra deliver playing of magnificent incisiveness and awesome power. Christopher Maltman is superb. His singing is histrionically powerful and projected very strongly yet he never sacrifices line or tonal purity. Furthermore, he’s splendidly alive to all the different moods of MacMillan’s music and to its often-subtle nuances. Thus, for example, his delivery of the words “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice”, is genuinely touching.  MacMillan paces the drama of this extended section with consummate assurance, thanks, no doubt, to his operatic credentials. Finally the choir sings a commentary on Judas “the vile merchant”. This unaccompanied passage is tremendously intense, all the more so since a good deal of the music is subdued and sorrowful. Yes, Judas is despised for his treachery but it seems he’s also pitied for his weakness. I wonder if MacMillan’s view of Judas has something in common with that of Elgar in The Apostles?
 
The action moves on to the scene of Christ being condemned to death. The LSO Chorus, as the baying mob – and how well MacMillan conveys that – is quite magnificent. But then, suddenly (at 4:12), the mood changes as the choir sings words from the Creed, “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” (“He was crucified for us.”) The searing music then becomes hushed and awestruck. The change is, itself, a coup after the boiling drama that’s gone before and it’s hugely effective – and hugely affecting. The length of the work means that it spills over onto a second CD. The break occurs here, very logically.
 
The fifth section portrays the Crucifixion and it begins with a strident orchestral introduction before the narration resumes. The section is quite brief and, strangely, I’m reminded again of Elgar, who, in Apostles, depicted the Crucifixion in just a few quiet orchestral bars. It’s as if each composer, in different ways, felt that this was an event that defied detailed illustrative writing; if so, I think they’re right. The concluding choral commentary is a verse from Psalm 2, set to fast, tumultuous music. 
 
Then we witness the division by the soldiers of Christ’s garments. The pathos of this incident is conveyed very aptly by MacMillan’s employment of glissandi in the narration, a device not used anywhere else in the work. As far as the soldiers were concerned, they’d merely done a job, executing one of three criminals, and the division of the clothing was a matter of detached routine. The choir sees it differently, however, and ends the movement with an impassioned prayer for forgiveness for sin.
 
The seventh section depicts the encounter between the crucified Christ and his mother. Very appropriately, MacMillan entrusts the narration to female voices only with a light, delicate accompaniment. At the end the choir’s commentary includes verses from the Stabat Mater. The music is quiet, poignant and very beautiful; it’s restrained but full of piercing compassion. There is a sense of a Gaelic lament and towards the end a phrase from the centuries-old Passion Chorale is heard.
 
As previously mentioned, the eighth section comprises The Reproaches. The baritone soloist’s music is full of distress and anguish while the choral responses are lacerating. The solo part is, in effect, a substantial and extremely powerful aria. Christopher Maltman rises to new heights of eloquence and excellence in these pages. His performance is simply riveting and extraordinarily moving.
 
The ninth section depicts the death of Jesus and the music is quiet and fairly simple. My sense is that MacMillan is humble in the face of his Redeemer’s sacrifice. His music is all the more effective for its evident restraint.
 
In Seven Last Words from the Cross MacMillan involved the choir at the start of the final movement but they were soon silenced and the instruments alone brought the work to its conclusion. Now MacMillan goes a step further and ends his Passion setting with a purely orchestral movement, which he describes as “a song without words”. At the start the music is dark and menacing, sounding in the depths of the orchestra. I wonder if this portrays the “darkness over the whole earth”, described in the Gospels? However, after the initial despondency a melody emerges quietly (1:14) in the lower strings. It’s noble and consoling – perhaps confirming that after horror there’s Hope. Some eloquent string writing follows as the intensity and complexity of the music increases. After a short but powerfully looming climax the song is taken up by the horns (5:51) who have a noble, reassuring line, decorated by the rest of the orchestra. Is this MacMillan’s Song of Redemption? It’s a very moving moment. At the end of this final section the music sinks back into an unquiet quietness in the depths of the orchestra and the last sound we hear is a quiet gong-stroke, which resonates and dies away. It is accomplished.
 
The performance is absolutely magnificent. I’ve already praised Christopher Maltman’s wonderful assumption of the part of Christ. The contribution of the other artists is on a similarly exalted level. The LSO Chorus must have been tested by MacMillan’s writing but they rise to the challenge and sing with tremendous commitment and assurance. The hand-picked semi-chorus (five sopranos and three each of altos, tenors and basses) offers excellent, clear singing. The playing of the LSO is just superb. Attack is formidably precise and incisive and the sheer power of their playing is overwhelming at times. Yet there’s a great deal of delicacy in the score as well and the playing of these passages is no less skilful. Presiding over it all is Sir Colin Davis. His achievement with this assignment shows the benefits of a lifetime’s experience in directing large forces and in mastering complex contemporary scores. Above all, we are reminded that Sir Colin is one of the finest opera conductors of the post-war period. I’m sure he felt honoured by receiving the dedication of this score; he conducts it with what must surely be total belief.
 
The set comes with a booklet containing the full text and useful notes, though the typeface is very small. Opinion may be divided about the recorded sound. As is often the case with recordings that originate in the Barbican the sound is somewhat close. On this occasion I don’t mind this for it adds to the already great impact of the piece. Other listeners might wish for more space around the sound. I listened to this hybrid SACD as a conventional CD, both through headphones and loudspeakers. The recording engineers have captured an abundance of detail and they convey the aural spectacle superbly.
 
I will admit frankly that this review is an interim judgement in the sense that James MacMillan has created a score with so much dramatic tension and such musical richness that it defies assimilation in just a few hearings. However, I have heard enough to be confident that it represents this extraordinarily eloquent and dramatic composer at his very best. I referred earlier to Seven Last Words from the Cross as a masterpiece. This St. John Passion, I venture to suggest, is an even more important and compelling work. Visceral in its impact and vivid in its communication, it is a work that grabs the listener by the throat. It compels our attention, engages us fully in the story and unflinchingly confronts us in all its awfulness. At the same time, despite its searing drama the setting also demands that the listener reflect on what he or she has heard. As such it is not just a work of great drama but also one of great profundity.
 
I have found listening to this work a very unsettling and deeply moving experience and that was particularly the case when, on the morning of Good Friday, I made a point of listening to it for the last time before writing this review. MacMillan’s St. John Passion is a work that is often harrowing, as befits its subject matter, but which also contains a good deal of beautiful and very thoughtful music. It may drain the listener but it also uplifts. It demands to be heard by all those with an interest in contemporary music. This is one of the most remarkable pieces of music to have come my way for many years and its debut recording is an unqualified triumph.
 
John Quinn
 

 


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