St John Passion
Christopher Maltman (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 28 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
We’re supposed to be living in a post-Christian age, but the desire for religious music, in which requiems and passions play a significant part, continues unabated, with regular performances of the tried and true masterpieces and a steady flow of new works, mainly post-war onwards, with especially notable passion settings from Penderecki, Pärt and Gubaidulina.
James MacMillan threw his hat in the ring two years ago, with his setting of the “St John Passion”, composed to mark Sir Colin Davis’s eightieth birthday. Sir Colin conducted that premiere performance (from which comes the LSO Live recording), and returned with the same forces for this performance.
MacMillan, a devout Roman Catholic, had already mined the rites of Holy Week in “Seven Last Words from the Cross”, The World’s Ransoming, Cello Concerto and the ‘Vigil’ Symphony, so this full-blown passion setting comes as no surprise, and it is a major addition to this select repertoire.
However, MacMillan’s portrayal of Christ might surprise some. He couldn’t be further from the iconic image of the Saviour as passive victim, and in Christopher Maltman’s searing performance, the emphasis is more on Jesus the man than on God made man, venting his fury on his betrayers in the Reproaches from the Cross in music of astonishing aggression, a resource MacMillan uses to great effect in this particular passage. This is very definitely not gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
To my mind, though, MacMillan rather overplays his hand in the anger department. Most of the ten sections (MacMillan has made a very free adaptation of the gospel text) start with an explosion of orchestral sound that soon becomes predictable, although this is mitigated by the Narrator Chorus, which relates the story in chant-like, close-harmony music that rotates round a small group of notes. At once remote, contemplative, almost withdrawn – and reminiscent of Stravinsky – the music is nevertheless highly charged and draws the listener in, and was most beautifully sung. I still have doubts about casting the Large Chorus in the other roles, including Pilate and Peter. In this most operatic of passions, the device blurs the central, highly personal dialogue between Christ and Pilate, which clinches Christ’s divinity. Another crucial moment, where Peter denies Christ, “and the cock crew”, is immediately followed by the choir singing “Thou art Peter and upon this rock shall I build my church”, a powerful conjunction that is wide open to interpretation. For all that, the London Symphony Chorus was on cracking form, showing off its enviable versatility and rising to all of MacMillan’s challenges.
Colin Davis had a sure hand for the work’s intense emotional range and was adept at subtly folding in references to Bach, in the poignant but totally non-mawkish recollections of ‘O sacred heart, sore wounded’, the immensely eloquent reminder, when Pilate says “What I have written, I have written”, of the moment in Britten’s “Billy Budd”, when Vere delivers Billy’s death sentence, and, even more poignantly, the “Tristan” quote in the final orchestral postlude, which in this context spoke volumes about betrayed love.
Overtly dramatic and assertive though much of the music is, the overwhelming impression from this performance was of the abandonment of hope that is central to the Good Friday liturgy, and which was powerfully focused by Christopher Maltman’s towering portrayal of Christ.