James MacMillan’s St John Passion

St John Passion [London Symphony Orchestra commission: World premiere]

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

London Symphony Chorus

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis

Reviewed by: David Bignell

Reviewed: 27 April, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The ancient Roman practice of scourging a prisoner and then leaving him nailed to a tree to die slowly of asphyxiation is one so barbaric as to give rise to a new word – excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”. It would be optimistic, then, to expect James MacMillan’s “St John Passion” to be a soothing affair.

James MacMillanFor his ten-movement portrayal of Christ’s crucifixion, MacMillan has been blessed with the considerable forces of the London Symphony Orchestra (which commissioned the work for Sir Colin Davis’s 80th-birthday), London Symphony Chorus, and the ever-youthful Colin Davis himself (the work’s dedicatee) – and he does not hide them under a bushel. Although in his programme-note the composer remarks that his intention was to create a “sparse and lean texture” with “limited percussion”, if any such limitation actually existed the orchestra certainly managed to overcome it. The work is, in short, loud.

The orchestral ensemble was taut throughout, however, and energy never flagged; the wind section in particular demonstrating notable stamina and precision in a score that contains much brass-heavy fanfare- and chorale-writing. The strings also dealt well with MacMillan’s propensity for highly rapid and chromatic scurrying figures, and particular mention should be made of Carmine Lauri, Lennox Mackenzie and David Alberman, the three violinists who admirably bore the brunt of the stratospheric and complex solo writing with which MacMillan accompanies all but one of Christ’s solos.

Pitted against this maelstrom, the London Symphony Chorus proved more than capable of holding its own. While some of the highly polyphonic choral-writing revealed insecurities, the choral-singers more than compensated for this with their verve and commitment – at times literally shouting cries of “Crucify him” (everything a baying mob should be) and they demonstrated some particularly fine singing in the occasional softer moments, too, liturgical chant to the fore, the end of the fourth movement being a stand-out moment of choral workmanship. As a foil, MacMillan employs a chamber choir to act as narrator; the fourteen singers were of a consistently high standard, diction and tuning being consistently excellent and with first-rate ensemble.

Christopher Maltman. ©Levon Biss At the centre of the action, Christopher Maltman handled the role of Christ with great conviction, holding nothing back in the more impassioned moments. His agonised question at the end of the eighth movement, “How have I offended you? Answer me!”, left as it was to hang unaccompanied in the air of the Barbican Hall, while not particularly Christ-like was nonetheless highly effective. Similarly, his final words, “It is finished”, were beautifully delivered.

As for the music itself, MacMillan has produced an interesting, involving and emotive work, but at times he could be accused of gilding the lily – the bells at the end of the seventh movement seemed a trifle gauche coming at the climax of the most serene and sublime writing, and the wind and string solos at the end of the fourth movement are an unnecessary adjunct to the choir’s beautiful chorale. He is also guilty at times of over-using certain tricks – glissando in particular, while interesting and effective at first, bordered on the irritating by the time the chamber choir started doing it. At other times the music veered between Britten and Debussy – with one rather disturbing foray into Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” – yet when he adhered more closely to his declared “sparse and lean texture”, he produced some intoxicating and original sounds.

It was a great pleasure to hear solos drifting out from the middle of the viola section while the clarinet was also put to excellent use, and the final instrumental movement, a sort of malformed canon, used the string section to great effect. The work ended with writing reminiscent of the opening, making it seem as though the we had come full-circle – perhaps not dramatically justifiable given that the intervening music had powerfully described the most important event in human history – but nevertheless the work felt musically satisfying.

Altogether this is interesting and exciting music, expertly performed, and while the score may not have been as consistent as the performance, it is certainly worthy, and was recorded for LSO Live.

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