Arts: Classical: The Passion retold in minimalist form

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JONATHAN HARVEY is a composer whose range of interests includes the Sanskrit Rig Veda, electronic music, Stockhausen and the theosophy of Rudolf Steiner. On Thursday at St John's Smith Square, however, the focus of his work turned powerfully on to a subject whose resonance is as old as it is central to the European tradition: the Easter story.

At this time of year, choirs and orchestras need no excuse to tell out the myth as superbly recounted in Handel's Messiah or the Bach Passions. Easter, after all, is the essential Christian festival, and what with the re-paganisation of Christmas into a mid-winter orgy, perhaps the only one that remains uniquely spiritual in its concern with the full meaning of the Incarnation. Top marks, none the less, to those valiant upholders of contemporary music, Sinfonia 21, for daring to programme a modern account of the Passion, Harvey's religious drama, Passion and Resurrection, written in 1981, and predating the revivalist mood of more recent works by so-called "faith minimalist" composers.

Passion and Resurrection began with the simplest of liturgical material: part of the communion rite from the Book of Common Prayer, "do this in remembrance of me", sung in John Merbecke's 16th-century setting by members of the BBC Singers, conducted by Martin Neary.

The 11 sections that flowed from this opening each followed the pattern of scene and interlude. Urgent telegraphic paraphrases of events in sung dialogue preceded no less pungently elliptical depictions of events set in terms of instrumental music. These latter, that of the seizing and binding of Christ, for example, were late-Stravinskian in flavour, feral bundles of biting and scratching solo strings set at odds with one another in registral extremes.

In contrast, the evening's other characteristic sound was that of the musical "halo", whether of delicate violin harmonics enrobing the majestic voice of Stuart McIntyre's Jesus, or the shining organ clusters that accompanied the congregational singing of the plainsong hymns Pange Lingua and Vexilla Regis.

If Judas was for Elgar the figure of human interest in The Apostles, then for Harvey in Passion and Resurrection, it was Pilate who assumed a rounded dimension, in so far as the schematic form allowed. Tightly controlled, the drama, which existed as much in the pauses and violent dissolves between scenes as within them, was cumulative, resolving itself into the final episode, "The Resurrection Garden". Here, in music dominated by Alison Smart's Mary Magdalene, and the Tippett-like radiance of Christ's closing monologue, the crux of the story was apparent: physical regeneration not dreamed of in heaven, but occurring somewhere downstairs in our reality.

Whether or not your disbelief was willingly suspended, the ending was impressive: a final blessing, then echoing fanfares from trombones, horns and tuba processing through the audience and outside, via church doors flung open to the four winds, the four elements, and the four imagined corners of the world.