Monday 28 April 2008

Review of MacMillan Passion

Last night's James MacMillan première at the Barbican was originally intended to be a 20 minute piece, commissioned to celebrate Sir Colin Davis's 80th birthday. Somehow, thanks to MacMillan's keenness to create a passion setting, this metamorphosed into a full length passion setting (nearly 2 hours of music) for large symphony orchestra (triple woodwind and brass, substantial percussion), large chorus, chamber choir and solo baritone (Christopher Maltman), all presided over with magesterian poise by Sir Colin himself.

MacMillan's take on the passion setting has to be understood in the context of the composer's regular participation in the Good Friday plainsong version of the Passion. This sense of a communal group event (rather than a solo narrator) gave rise to the chamber choir, (called the narrator choir) which takes the role of the evangelist. For this group (some 13 professional choral singers recruited specially), MacMillan writes in his familiar, mellifluous religious style. Often homophonic, with achingly beautiful harmonies, the narrator choir steadily works its way through the gospel narrative, often like a still small voice amidst the chaos. Only at the most dramatic points do the choir's contribution develop into something more complex. This was a profoundly moving device, but there were occasions when you could almost hear MacMillan cursing as he realised quite how much text he had to get through.

Apart from Christ (played by Christopher Maltman) all the other characters were sung by the large chorus. This meant that the sense of the gospel as personal drama was somewhat removed. Instead, the large choral interjections were treated as dramatic events, highly characterised episodes which contrasted greatly with the narrator choir. Around this swirled the orchestra. The results were not infrequently very loud. Contrast and gesture seemed to be an essential part of the work.

MacMillan's ear for orchestral sound was masterly. The narrator choir would be unaccompanied or have individual groups of instruments swirling around them but once quiet they orchestral trickle developed into a torrent.

Maltman's role as Christ was magnified in this version as MacMillan included the Good Friday Reproaches as the 8th part of the Passion (again harking back to his participation in the Good Friday liturgy). Maltman was masterly, delivering MacMillan's complex, melismatic lines with passion and intensity; this was certainly no tentative first performance.

The LSO chorus was highly taxed by MacMillan's complex and dramatic choral writing. They delivered everything with passion and commitment, though at times their response lacked the requisite sophistication. At the end of each part, MacMillan includes a relevant Latin text, set for the large chorus and orchestra. Some of these were truly magical, but a couple required the sort of complex modern polyphony which MacMillan is wont to write for choirs, but which is relatively unfamiliar territory for a large scale chorus. This is the sort of piece which the chorus will grow into I think. But, given the taxing nature of the writing and the sheer volume of the choral contribution, it is a tribute to the choir's energy and commitment that they gave such a fine performance.

The stage was very very full and there were times when this piece felt too big for the Barbican Hall. It was a shame that the narrator choir had to be tucked away at the side rather than taking centre stage as they ought to. In his programme note MacMillan talked about the austerity of the orchestral writing, just proving how bad a judge of their own works composers can be; if this was austere, I hesitate to consider what a more richly orchestrated version would contain.

This performance in which vivid and noisy violence contrasted with serenity, peace and aching beauty. For me the violent bits were just a bit too noisy too often, almost as if there was not middle way. Perhaps in a bigger hall this would change. I found the work fascinating and beautiful, awestruck at the composer's vision.

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