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A Christus sung by 30 girls

17 April 2014

Charles Stewart hears MacMillan's St Luke Passion in Amsterdam


THE rapt attention with which the audience in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, listened to the world première of James MacMillan's St Luke Passion last month and the standing ovation that followed its conclusion suggest that MacMillan has produced a significant addition to the repertoire.

The Passion is close to MacMillan's heart. When he was growing up as a Roman Catholic in Ayrshire, the Good Friday recitation of St John's Passion was a formative experience; and he began singing a plainsong English version as a student. His catalogue includes the Seven Last Words from the Cross (1993) and Triduum (1995-97); and although his St John Passion (2008) jettisons aspects familiar from Bach's Passions (no solo arias or chorales; the tenor Evangelist replaced by a chamber choir), it remains on the grand scale.

With this St Luke setting, the 54-year-old composer clearly had a different kind of Passion in mind. His decision to scale down the forces to two choirs, chamber orchestra, and organ, and to limit himself to Lucan texts, has resulted in a more compact work. Lasting only 75 minutes, this music is marked by intensity of expression and dramatic conviction as well as moments of mesmerising beauty.

The genesis of this St Luke Passion is unusual. Not long after the St John Passion première, MacMillan was in discussion with Dr Jeremy Begbie, currently at Duke University, NC, who then set up the Duke-Cambridge Collaboration, a group of American and British theologians, biblical scholars, and writers. MacMillan has met the group several times since its inception in Holy Week 2010.

MacMillan's most radical innovation is to have Christ's words sung by a youth choir. As he has written: "Any Passion that casts Christ as a soloist immediately makes him take human form as an adult male, whereas I wanted to examine his otherness, sanctity, and mystery."

On the evidence of the première, he has succeeded triumphantly. Christus was sung by the 30 girls of the Netherlands National Youth Choir (in flawless English), their music sometimes in three-part harmony, in reference to the Trinity, elsewhere in unison or octaves, conveying a sense of the innocence of the Lamb of God. Most telling was "Daughters of Jerusalem", where the Christus choir divide into three parts singing in canon, their expressive keening conveying Christ's compassion for Jerusalem's future suffering.

Though MacMillan is clear that the Duke-Cambridge group's research and reflections have informed, but never interfered with, his compositional process, its influence is heard from the outset. Arrestingly, St Luke Passion begins neither with Satan's entering into Judas, nor at the Mount of Olives, but with a thrice-repeated choral cry, "Maria!" Uniquely, this Passion begins with a Prelude that focuses on the incarnation, and closes with a Postlude that alludes to resurrection and ascension. Together, the Prelude and Postlude provide an intentional framework that presents the Passion in its theological context.

Apart from the Christus music, everything else is sung by the chorus. Under the committed direction of Markus Stenz, the professional Netherlands Radio Choir coped well with the challenges of MacMillan's choral writing. Only occasionally - as when the basses voiced Peter's replies by the courtyard fire and Pilate's responses to the mob - did they give the impression that making a beautiful sound mattered more than finding the right vocal colour to convey dramatic tension. Perhaps when this music is sung by good amateur choirs, whom MacMillan had in mind when writing the work, more of the drama will be communicated.

Crucially, MacMillan's choral scoring is inventive enough to hold the audience's attention throughout, creatively varying the textures and combinations of vocal lines. Also evident is his skill as an interpreter of the Passion, adding meaning through purely musical means. For example, MacMillan departs from convention at "Crucify him", which is first sung by the low basses, softly, though menacingly; the other voices enter line by line in a huge crescendo, till all four parts at the top of their range cry again and again for Christ's death.

Those familiar with MacMillan's music will recognise his trademark rhythmic complexity in the orchestral writing - here played by the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra - vocal ornamentation drawn from Scots folk music, hints of Gregorian chant, and moments of transcendent lyricism. He is unafraid to allude to other music: the "Passion Chorale" emerges from within the orchestral turmoil following the death of Jesus; the three Lucan texts from MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross appear in refashioned form to great effect; and there are deliberate echoes of Tristan und Isolde.

This deeply moving St Luke Passion ends with the sound of the unaccompanied Christus choir humming an F-sharp, fading into a profound silence: the crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus is with us, as he promised.

The first UK performances will be given by the CBSO Chorus in December and by the Britten Sinfonia in April 2015. Not to be missed.

Canon Charles Stewart is the Vicar of Walton-on-Thames, and is currently researching into presenting the Passion through music.

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