Monday 6 December 2021

Grappling with the unknowable: James MacMillan's remarkable new Christmas Oratorio receives its UK premiere at the Southbank Centre

James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio - Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, Sir Mark Elder - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Mark Allan)
James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio - Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, Sir Mark Elder - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Mark Allan)

James MacMillan Christmas Oratorio; Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir; Sir Mark Elder; Royal Festival Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 December 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
James MacMillan's thoughtful and intriguing response to the Christmas narrative finally gets its UK premiere in a superb performance from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir

James MacMillan's Christmas Oratorio was premiered in Amsterdam in January 2021. A co-commission from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, NTR Zaterdagmatinee, The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the work received its UK premiere at the Southbank Centre on Saturday. Sir Mark Elder conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in James MacMillan's Christmas Oratorio at the Royal Festival Hall on 4 December 2021 with soloists soprano Lucy Crowe and baritone Roderick Williams.

It is a substantial work, around two hours of music, and though MacMillan restricts his orchestral forces (double woodwind, brass, percussion, harp, celeste) there is a substantial role for the large chorus, as well as two arias a-piece for the soloists. MacMillan's aim was not pure narrative, this was not a work that began at the beginning the way a Passion narrative might, nor was it pure celebration (there wasn't a Christmas carol in sight), though the opening sinfonia was full of dancing rhythms. Instead it seemed an exploration of what the birth of Christ might mean, so there was joy and celebration (those dancing rhythms), mystery and wonder (choral settings of texts such as O Magnum Mysterium), anger and drama (including the Slaughter of the Innocents), narrative and mysticism. The phrase that I kept coming back to was the line from the Gospel according to St John, 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us'; MacMillan seemed to be constantly wondering what this might exactly mean, looking at the idea from multiple angles.

James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio - Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Mark Allan)
James MacMillan: Christmas Oratorio - Lucy Crowe, Roderick Williams, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Mark Allan)

Formally, the work has quite a tight structure, two halves, each in seven movements - sinfonia, chorus, aria, tableau, aria, chorus, sinfonia. The choruses are largely liturgical Latin texts, though the chorus also takes a significant role in the two tableaus, the first a narrative of the Nativity, the second covering text from St John's Gospel 'In the beginning was the Word', whilst the arias were moments of contemplation setting 16th and 17th century English texts.

Yet, within this there was a profound restlessness of structure and texture, a mosaic of smaller strong-coloured moments so that the work almost dazzled with its vividness and with MacMillan's willingness to juxtapose vastly different timbres and textures. But, if you are grappling with a subject so immense and unknowable as the Incarnation, such an approach is understandable.

The first part began with delicate, precise dancing rhythms in the orchestra, often for small groups of instruments and throughout the work MacMillan used his orchestral forces sparingly and imaginatively, juxtaposing different groups to create a wide palate of timbres and textures rather than a single monolithic force. The first chorus, setting a selection of Latin texts, explored Christ as the true Light, and featured strong contrasts, and a sense of vivid mystery. The first aria, for Lucy Crowe, set Robert Southwell, 'Behold a tender silly babe', with MacMillan setting the florid, fluid soprano part against smaller orchestral forces in a style which harked back to mid-Century British music (Finzi's Dies Natalis came to mind). Crowe brought wonderfully plangent tone to the piece, ending on a lovely radiant note.

The central tableau took the Nativity narrative from the arrival of the wise men at Herod's court to the flight into Egypt and the family's final return to Nazareth. The chorus bore the bulk of the narrative, with a choral chanting to which the orchestra brought colour and drama. There were moments of terrific anger in the orchestra at the Slaughter of the Innocents, and throughout the two soloists contributed gloriously florid lines, creating some fabulous moments.

The second aria, for Roderick Williams, set John Donne on the Nativity, bringing in considerations of the Incarnation. Williams was simple and direct, with some lovely moments in the orchestra. The second chorus was full of dance, with a setting of the antiphon Hodie Christus natus est, reaching a climax which was almost ecstatic, and the second sinfonia continued this feeling of vivid dance and sheer joy.

Part two began with a fast, intricate sinfonia that was almost kaleidoscopic in its textures. The third chorus was a setting of the responsory O Magnum Mysterium, atmospheric orchestral sounds and a mystical choir creating some elaborate and highly responsive and magical moments. The third aria, for Roderick Williams, set part of Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity; a vivid and appealing vocal line over discreet orchestral support. The second tableau concerned the opening of St John's Gospel, 'In the beginning was the word', again as choral narration with florid contributions from the soloists, the music again moving towards the mystical, but leading to a simply shattering climax.

After such a contemplation, we turned to Robert Southwell again, as Lucy Crowe sang a setting of The Burning Babe, a curious and highly mystical poem that MacMillan set by combining an urgent vocal line with strong contrasts in the orchestral contributions. Crowe's delivery was positively rapturous as she delivered MacMillan's response to these not quite comfortable words. The final chorus was a wonderfully gentle lullaby, setting an English version of a traditional Scottish Gaelic song. The choir unaccompanied except for the celeste, this was simply magical.

For the final sinfonia, MacMillan used a quintet of string soloists (two violins, viola and two cellos) as a concertino group, contrasting the rich yet intimate quintet writing with more chorale like music for the orchestra. The result was somehow contemplative yet brought out a sense of summation too, after all that we had considered.

The work received a terrific performance from all concerned, and there was little sense from any of the performers as to quite how challenging the work is. It was great to see the London Philharmonic Choir together and in terrific form, whilst the orchestral players rose brilliantly to the challenge of MacMillan's often soloistic writing. Both Lucy Crowe and Roderick Williams brought a sense of beauty and wonder to their music, though neither was able to really convey the words and the arias did rather require you to read the printed text. Sir Mark Elder controlled everything, and was clearly very much in tune with the work's style and character, relishing the contrasts, the way the vivid could transform into the mysterious.

This was very much a work which approached the Christmas narrative from a religiously engaged point of view, an attempt by one of our finest contemporary composers to come to grips musically both with the idea of the word made flesh and with the history of telling the Nativity story in music. I have to admit that part of me feels that he work does not quite add up to the sum of its parts; alongside the myriad wonderful moments there was also the nagging feeling that the work's sheer variety worked against it. The audience reaction was extremely positive, yet I know people who found it too diffuse and lacking in focus. Perhaps we all need time to settle with the work and come to grips with it.

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