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MacMillan conducts new Passion in Birmingham

09 January 2015

Roderic Dunnett attended the concert in the Symphony Hall


JAMES MACMILLAN's St John Passion proved to be a massive undertaking when first heard at the Barbican Hall in April 2008. Both in its accomplished choral writing and in the bracing exchanges of the principal characters, MacMillan approached the Gospel narrative with almost operatic fervour: time and again, he whipped up the kind of drama one associates with, say, the Requiem of Verdi.

In contrast, MacMillan has adopted a much soberer approach in his St Luke Passion, first heard in Amsterdam (Arts, 17 April 2014). The British première was by the CBSO in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Noting "St Luke's concern with the Kingdom of God, which looks ahead to his Acts of the Apostles", MacMillan has chosen to adopt "a more pared-back, spiritual, inward approach" to his new setting in English of the third Gospel.

His way of achieving this is to dispense with soloists and give the narration, principally from Luke 22 and 23, to the main chorus, while allocating Christ's words to a mainly two-part children's (girls') chorus - here the very polished and attentive CBSO Youth Chorus. The intention, the composer says, was "to grant a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb".

MacMillan, conducting, chose to leave the Symphony Hall's echo-chamber doors, which play a crucial part in enlarging the sound, open; so that even with chamber forces (telling trumpets, but not trombones; some single woodwind) the sound is quite substantial. The narrative proper gets under way with a kind of scherzo, lightly syncopated, for the tenors and basses, and indeed his use of these forces repeatedly is one of the work's strengths. While parts of the main chorus are purely homophonic, he also engages them in periodic canonic writing, and this can intensify the drama.

He accompanies the girls with some striking touches: an oboe duet; clarinet baldly offset by bass clarinet; just as an oriental shawm-like effect underlies the main chorus's preface to the Mount of Olives. There is a highly atmospheric feel to the almost apocalyptic-sounding "and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground." At Christ's querying of Judas, he does indeed embark on a highly dramatic sequence. One of the most notable sections is the chorus's outline of Peter's betrayal, which is followed by a cello and double-bass interlude of almost sumptuous beauty.

As the trial gets under way, MacMillan makes increasing use of the melismata, or decorations, familiar from his other music, and with their roots in Gaelic folk music; they recur movingly in the girls' part at Jesus' words, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me." Yet, time and again, the restrained forces and dynamics enable him to produce striking instrumental effects: paired trumpets, a solo flute, vigorous upper-string clustering. Hushed tympani underscoring the sound of the young voices, breaking into touching canons, confirmed the refinement with which this Youth Chorus has been trained and prepared by Julian Wilkins. Their elders fared just as well.

There is, I suppose, a drawback. Restricting himself to more limited forces and keeping their narration relatively simple - perhaps part-fired by plainsong - does generate an appropriately demure feel, but it can verge on repetitive. The simplicity of delivery makes the work come closer to, say, the early Baroque of Schütz than to the full-bloodedness of Bach. The layout makes it perhaps easier for choral societies and even parish forces to explore; but after half an hour it begins to sound a little anodyne.

Yet one can always be surprised. For it is precisely a Bachian build-up, an exciting one, that MacMillan engineers before the Postlude - "intended to look ahead to the Resurrection and Ascension" - where he allocates a long epilogue to the strings, one that came as another surprise, but which was supremely well played. All the CBSO sections seemed as superlative as ever; I just wished that they had had slightly more to get their teeth into.

James MacMillan's opera Inès de Castro will be revived by Scottish Opera from 22 to 31 January.


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