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
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
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
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.