MacMillan: St. John Passion

April 7, 2009

MacMillan: St. John Passion
Christopher Maltman; London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Sir Colin Davis
(LSO Live; 1.5 h)

The tradition of writing musical settings of the Passion of Christ has its roots deep in the Middle Ages, and came to full flower in Europe during the early eighteenth-century, most eminently in the music of J.S. Bach.  Then, for two centuries or more, the genre seems to have fallen out of favour.  In the last few decades, however, we have, perhaps unexpectedly, witnessed a revival of the form: in the mid-1960s Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki wrote a St.Luke Passion that boldly combined the traditional form with avant-garde musical techniques; in the 1980s Arvo Pärt wrote a beautiful, contemplative setting of the St.John Passion; the millenium saw a flurry of Passion settings from modern composers Wolfgang Rihm, Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, and Sofia Gubaidulina.  Here, with his 2008 St.John Passion, the excellent Scottish composer James MacMillan steps into the ring.

He isn’t shy about throwing his weight around: this is an urgent, thoroughly dramatic telling of the Passion, and he brings the full force of his large orchestra and chorus to bear.  Horns blare, timpani rumble, cymbals crash, and the narrative is carried irresistibly forward.  He makes use of two choruses: a small, light one in the role of the Evangelist (singing the non-dialogue portions of the text), and a large one in the role of the turba — the crowd.

MacMillan’s text, in English, adheres faithfully to Scripture, beginning at John 18:1 (the arrest of Jesus) and continuing through John 19:30 (the death of Jesus).  He has divided the story into eight narrative sections, at the end of each inserting an appropriate Latin prayer for chorus. These interludes are wonderful, the music opening up in glorious meditations on the events of the story.  These prayers have been thoughtfully chosen: the section narrating the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane ends with Christ asking, “Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?”  MacMillan continues with a setting of the Eucharistic prayer over the wine: Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes….  Another example: the section which ends with the words “Peter again denied it; and at once the cock crowed” is followed by a setting of the triumphant Tu es Petrus….  The tender section in which Jesus, hung on the cross and near death, commends his mother to the care of St. John is followed by a few stanzas of the Stabat mater.  You get the idea.

The final narrative section, on the death of Jesus, is magnificently and movingly done, and the Passion closes with a ten-minute orchestral epilogue that is fittingly sorrowful and subdued, but grants, at the end, a glimmer of hope: the gentle ringing of bells.  It is a superb finish.

This Passion setting has a great deal going for it: ambitious and dramatic writing, and genuine theological insight and piety.  On this recording it is sung and played to the highest standards.

It is a pity, therefore, that it is marred by a terrible flaw.  The problem is the manner in which MacMillan has set the words of Jesus.  It is traditional to set Christ’s words in the bass register, signifying his profundity and sovereignty.  MacMillan has followed suite, but has written most of the music in the highest part of his singer’s range.  And rather than giving Christ simple and direct melodies, he has written florid, jagged vocal lines, most unlovely.  The result is that Christ sounds strained and weak, more like a vascillating Pilate than a heavenly king.  Baritone Christopher Maltman copes manfully with the demands placed on him, but it is a thankless job.  It is a shame — not enough to overwhelm all the wonderful things that MacMillan has accomplished here, and on balance I would still recommend this to those with an interest, but a shame nonetheless.

One Response to “MacMillan: St. John Passion”

  1. […] of music for Holy Week to add to my collection.  Last year it was James MacMillan’s St. John Passion, an ambitious and searingly intense but ultimately (in my judgment) flawed piece.  This year I was […]

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