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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
St Luke Passion (2012-13): Prelude [8:27]; Chapter 22 [32:45]; Chapter 23 [25:30]; Postlude [6:17]
Netherlands Radio Choir; National Youth Choir; Peter Dicke (organ)
Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra/Markus Stenz
rec. live, 15 March 2014, Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Texts not included

Last December I reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard the UK première of MacMillan’s St Luke Passion at a concert in which the composer himself conducted the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its choirs. The excellence of that performance was one reason why the score made such a strong impression on me and I’m delighted to find that the work has now made it onto disc. The present recording preserves the world première of the work.

This is the second Passion setting that MacMillan has composed. His St John Passion (2008) hugely impressed me in the magnificent live recording conducted by its dedicatee, Sir Colin Davis (review). The St Luke Passion is on a rather different scale. The orchestral forces are smaller, there are no vocal soloists and the work is nearly twenty minutes shorter in length. Furthermore, though the new setting doesn’t pull its punches the music is less visceral than that of the St John Passion.
The St John Passion is an uncompromising score which, I should imagine, bristles with difficulties. The new work certainly presents many challenges to the performers but I have the impression that MacMillan has taken a conscious decision to place the music within the reach of amateur choirs, albeit well-trained ones. He’s also scored the work for a relatively modest orchestra of six woodwinds, two horns and two trumpets, timpani and strings plus a very important organ part. The orchestration is surely driven by the character of the music. However I fancy that the less extravagant forces required may result in the St Luke Passion being performed rather more frequently than may be feasible in the case of MacMillan’s earlier Passion setting.

The core text of the piece is Chapters 22 and 23 of St Luke’s Gospel, which are set in their entirety. In other words the Passion narrative begins as Jesus and his disciples prepare for the Last Supper and ends with Christ expiring on the cross and the centurion exclaiming ‘Certainly this man was innocent’. Rather unusually, however, MacMillan has added to the Passion text some other passages from St Luke’s Gospel. The Passion narrative is preceded by a short Prelude which is concerned with the Annunciation. At the very end of the work there is an equally short Postlude in which the Resurrection is implied and the Ascension is briefly narrated. There’s a third, telling addition to the Passion Gospel text. In the middle of the work, as Chapter 22 gives way to chapter 23 at the point where Christ has been interrogated at the home of the High Priest and is about to face Pilate, MacMillan has interpolated a brief phrase, ‘Do not be afraid’. This is from Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel. It comes from the narrative of the Annunciation and the words have already appeared in MacMillan’s Prologue; repeating them here, as Christ moves towards his destiny, is very insightful, I think. These additions are unconventional but when I first heard the piece I thought they worked both in a scriptural and musico-dramatic way and further acquaintance with the work has reinforced that view. The work is sung in English and MacMillan has selected the English translation found in the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1966).

The narration is sung by the adult choir. Interestingly MacMillan has set the words of Christ for the children’s choir. The children sing either in unison or in three-part harmony. In an interview printed in the programme for the Birmingham performance that I attended MacMillan explained the decision to use the children in this way: “I wanted to examine [Christ’s] otherness, sanctity and mystery. Employing a children’s choir grants a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb.” My experience in hearing both that performance and this recording is that this device succeeds triumphantly.

The orchestra has a vital role. I’ve now been able to appreciate the detail in the scoring in a way that I couldn’t at the Birmingham performance – that’s no reflection on the fine playing of the CBSO on that occasion; it was just that there was so much to take in at a single hearing. The orchestral writing is full of interest and dramatic import and very colourful. On several occasions, especially at the end of each section of the work, the orchestra takes over the argument in powerful interludes. Hearing the work again has confirmed the practicality of MacMillan’s writing in the way that he looks after his choir in what must be a very tricky score to sing. The composer ensures either that the singers are given a discreet but clear cue note from the orchestra just before an entry or else that they are sensibly and relevantly supported by the instruments. This is a score which is as carefully crafted as it is emotionally engaged.

First we hear a short Prelude which is concerned with the Annunciation to Mary, as described by St Luke. MacMillan’s music depicts the beauty of the event but also the awesome power of the announcement that God is to be made Man. Two verses from the Magnificat are included in this section, set to delicate and lovely music. Even more ear-catching is the slow, mysterious music to which MacMillan sets the words ‘Blessed are you among women …’

Chapter 22 of Luke’s Gospel describes the Last Supper and institution of the Eucharist, Gethsemane, the betrayal and arrest of Christ and his interrogation at the house of the High Priest. The setting of Christ’s words as he celebrates the first Eucharist is very moving, especially on account of the innocent timbre of the children’s voices. I had forgotten how fresh and lovely is MacMillan’s writing for the children in this score. The young voices of National Youth Choir make a delightful sound and they sing this far from easy music with great assurance. The only issue I have is that their words aren’t always completely clear – this is a flaw in the singing of the adults also.

When the narration moves to the Garden of Gethsemane there’s some very eloquent and moving a cappella writing for the choir in the passage beginning ‘And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.’ (Track 2, 16:39 -18:59). The music depicting the arrest is naturally very dramatic and biting.

Chapter 23 includes the scene with Pilate, the Crucifixion and Christ’s death and it’s no surprise when MacMillan introduces the section with menacing music for the brass underpinned with pounding timpani. The confrontation with Pilate is without a doubt the work of an experienced operatic composer and the drama is intensified by gestures such as the staggering organ chords after Pilate declares for the first time ‘I will therefore chastise him and release him’ (track 3, 6:00). MacMillan’s depiction of the mob’s response is outstandingly effective: their cry of ‘Crucify him’ starts very quietly but swiftly builds in intensity and volume in a way that sounds genuinely frightening (6:39 -7:22). Though much of the music in these pages is, of necessity, vivid and brutal there are moments of beauty too. That’s especially true of the wonderful part-writing for the children at ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me’ (from 10:02). The depiction of the death of Christ (from 17:45) is very intense and when the Gospel narrative leaves off the orchestra has a postlude of shattering intensity built round a statement by the horns of the celebrated Passion Chorale.

The work ends with a short Postlude depicting the Ascension. In these pages strident dissonance – though not all dissonance – is banished; instead the music is positive in tone. The choir sings St Luke’s description of the moment of the Ascension, their music derived from plainchant. Then the orchestra concludes the work, the choir singing wordlessly. Here the music is luminous, conveying the mystical power of Christ’s Ascension and eventually dying away into nothing.

The first time I heard St Luke Passion it made a powerful impact on me. Now, with the opportunity for more detailed listening this recording has reinforced that initial impression. This is a sincere, eloquent and vividly communicative work. The music in no way condescends to the audience but it speaks very directly to the listener, drawing you into the drama. I’m in no doubt now that this is a very important work.

The present performance makes the best possible case for the piece. The singing of both the adult and children’s choirs is magnificent while the orchestral music – and the vital organ part – is thrillingly performed. Markus Stenz draws a committed and energised performance from his forces.

The SACD sound is superb. The loud passages have huge impact but the delicate episodes register equally well and the listener can discern an abundance of detail. There’s a good booklet note by Michel Khalifa. Unfortunately there’s one vital omission: the text is not printed. This is a very serious gap in the documentation because it’s essential to be able to follow what’s going on. I was fortunate in that I could follow the words from the concert programme I had kept after the Birmingham concert but even so I didn’t always find it easy to make out the words that the choirs were singing.

However, don’t let the lack of texts put you off. This is an important, gripping score and it’s been superbly performed and recorded here. This disc is a ‘must’ for all admirers of James MacMillan’s music and further evidence of the effective way that Challenge Classics has championed his music in the last few years. Dare we now hope that they will give us recordings of two other recent choral works: the Gloria (review) or the very recent Seven Angels (review)? Both are terrific works, worthy of the wider audience that only recordings can achieve.

John Quinn


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