LSO Live – James MacMillan’s St John Passion

0 of 5 stars

St John Passion

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Recorded April 2008 in Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: May 2009
(2 CDs)
Duration: 90 minutes



James Macmillan’s Catholic beliefs have long been an important motivation behind much of his work. “St John Passion”, composed in 2007, is his biggest sacred concert work so far. It is dedicated to Sir Colin Davis, in honour of his 80th-birthday. This recording was made at the work’s premiere.

MacMillan has both followed and re-thought the tradition of passion settings familiar from J. S. Bach. There is only one soloist, a baritone who takes the role of Jesus. The narrator’s role is given to a small chorus – fourteen hand-picked singers in this performance – while the rest of the text is allotted to the full choir, including the roles of Pilate, Peter and others, as well as the crowd. The orchestra is substantial but not extravagantly large, in keeping with Macmillan’s stated aim of combining a “sparse and lean texture” with “the potential for full dramatic climaxes”.

The work is divided into ten sections. The first seven each comprise a section of the biblical narrative, followed by a Latin liturgical text offering a comment on what has just been sung. The biblical text is put to one side in section 8, which presents the part of the Good Friday liturgy known as the Reproaches, set as a dialogue between the baritone and the Large Chorus. Section 9 reverses the pattern of the first seven, with the liturgical Latin text preceding the final biblical passage. The work ends with a substantial section for orchestra alone, part sombre processional, part instrumental polyphonic motet.

MacMillan’s score embraces a wide expressive range. The emotional detachment of plainsong (what he calls, in his note in the booklet, its “cool purity”) is felt most clearly in the Narrator Chorus’s contribution. At the other end of the emotional scale are highly intense passages where, to quote the composer again, the influence of his 2006 opera “The Sacrifice” is apparent. The solo baritone part, in particular, is at times remarkably convoluted. This is no calm, self-possessed Jesus, but an agonised, even angry, figure, and the orchestral writing often reflects these tortured expressive extremes – this is the Passion almost as expressionist psycho-drama.

The choral and orchestral writing, too, are remarkably demanding, but everyone involved rises to what was clearly a remarkable occasion. Christopher Maltman, in particular, gives a performance of commanding authority and vocal dexterity, and the LSO and London Symphony Chorus appear totally unfazed by the music’s exceptional demands. The sound is clear and detailed; the booklet includes the complete text, with translations of the Latin passages.

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