Friday, 5 March 2010

MacMillan Passion again

On Sunday we went to the Barbican to hear James MacMillan's St. John Passion, which we first heard at its première 2 years ago. It was performed by the same forces; Christopher Maltman and the LSO conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

On second hearing the piece remains as powerful and as astonishing as on first hearing. What came over was the variety of textures that MacMillan uses in the piece. This variety arises partly because of the decisions MacMillan has taken about the allocation of the text. The Evangelist's part is sung by a semi-chorus, the Narrator choir, which sings unaccompanied or only lightly accompanied, in a generally homophonic style which is highly inflected by Gregorian chant. It is a style which you find in some of MacMillan's sacred music, one both very personal and highly evocative.

Christus is sung by the baritone solo, Christopher Maltman. For Christ's shorter, more gnomic pronouncements, MacMillan gives the baritone long, melismatic lines and uses the capabilities of a dramatic, operatic soloist to enable him to give the part with a strong orchestral accompaniment. MacMillan solves the problem of Christ disappearing from the narrative towards the end, by appending to the text the Good Friday Reproaches, so that the Christ has a satisfyingly substantial solo towards the end of the piece.

The remaining text from the Gospel is sung by the main choir, the LSO Chorus. The size of the choir means that MacMillan can write large scale, dramatic music with strong (loud) orchestral accompaniment in a way that would not be possible if he was using soloists. The result is highly dramatic, non-naturalistic and very loud; especially when as sung as thrillingly as it was here.

At the end of each section of the Gospel narrative, MacMillan appends a Latin text which relates to what has gone before and uses this text to give the large choir a motet which comments on and relates to the narrative. Here the large choir also sing in a style which relates to MacMillan's other sacred music.

Throughout the piece the orchestra are a large component of the action but at the end, in the final movement, they play alone to provide a moving summation to the action. All in all, a powerful and moving piece, one that is profoundly satisfying.

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