THIS Passiontide I attended a concert, The New Passion, by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
The RCO have in recent years presented performances of modern Passion music. The first, in 2009, was James MacMillan’s St John Passion; the second, in 2013, Calvary by Frank Martin. I am looking forward to 2021!
This year’s concert featured two world premières, alternatives to the Protestant traditional Passions. Mystical Sacrifice by Djuro Zivkovic (born in Belgrade, 1975) draws on the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and was sung in Church Slavonic. Nasimi-Passion by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (born 1947) was based on the life and suffering of the 14th-century poet Nasimi Imadeddin, executed in Aleppo in 1417.
The conductor Martyn Brabbins is well-known to readers of this page, but has only recently worked with the RCO: they have a keen rapport. The RCO and the Netherlands Radio Choir gave assured performances.
Zivkovic’s Mystical Sacrifice is in three sections, Passion, Death, and Resurrection, featuring a mixed chorus and solo tenor, who was Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts. The work opens with the text “Christ! In your Kingdom remember us, O Lord.” This is accompanied by crashing percussion, two harps, and strings agitated with very short strokes of the bow, creating a sense of anguish. The second part begins with ethereal sounds of a tam tam, shimmering strings, and a bow drawn across a cymbal as the tenor solo sings of human life as saved by the death and suffering of Christ. The piece ends with a Sprechgesang solo for the tenor before ending in repeated cries of “Alleluia”. This was a dense but accessible modern composition.
Ali-Zadeh’s Nasimi-Passion requires a baritone soloist, who was Evez Abdulla, from Azerbaijan. This piece opens with a flourish of orchestra, percussion, and descending fanfares on the trombones. Perhaps there is the slightest nod to Janácek here. Overall, the sound world is one of business and ferment: uncertain times in an unsafe world. The texts draw parallels between the life of Christ as a prophet and Nasimi Imadeddin as a politically incorrect poet of truths.
The orchestration held my interest throughout: the baritone was accompanied by plucked lower strings, bassoons, and timpani for his solo “I as proclaimer of the truth . . . in this world gained fame.”
An interlude for solo violin, the principals of the string sections playing pizzicato and glissandi, leads into a chorus of “Go through the gate of righteousness without sin, repent with all your being.” The work closes with the baritone and chorus in unison singing: “I would not fit in this narrow world” alongside “He was a saint for us.” The sound world was that of a frenzied chattering of birds before opening into a broad lament.
The concert was convincingly performed and enthusiastically received.
It may be available on the RCO website in future.