St John Passion: LSO/Davis, Barbican, London
Friday 02 May 2008
Contemporary settings of Christ's Passion have not yet shown the durability of Bach's. Krzystof Penderecki caused a stir four decades ago with his St Luke Passion, mixing avant-garde style into traditional forms, but where is it now? James MacMillan has delivered a St John Passion that stirred its premiere audience to a standing ovation, and seems made of sturdier stuff. True, its composer also made his name with a fusion of old and new ways, in formats that became sometimes predictable, but here the music showed a freshly thought quality to underpin its typical intensity of utterance.
The basis was choral: a small ad hoc professional group sang narrations from St John's Gospel in modern translation, often using chanted rhythms in quick-moving block chords, and the large London Symphony Chorus took most of the dramatic roles in freer style, backed by full orchestra. One vocal soloist, the baritone Christopher Maltman, sang Christ in arioso-like episodes, but there were no full arias, a feature that helped to propel the urgently concise drama.
Each of the first nine parts ended with, or wove in towards the end, a more reflective section using external biblical or liturgical texts: the most complex and extended music in the work except for its final part, an orchestral meditation with gleams of hope in an embedded horn melody, but returning to gloom.
With a similar punctuating role to the public chorales in baroque Passions, they were an almost exact opposite in their musical function, the most personal parts of the piece, relieving the accumulated tension by expanding and drawing together the threads of the composition.
Compressing the story into an hour and a half, MacMillan went big on betrayal, first by Judas, then by the high priests. There was an epic courtroom argument between Christ and Pilate, the latter sung by choral basses who gave him the character of a stern but cunning bureaucrat. St Peter got short shrift: no weeping over his denials, and a clear irony about his being called the rock of Christ's church.
The music often ran at high pace, its main respite a tender treatment of Christ's encounter with his mother, accompanied by the words of the "Stabat Mater", along with a halting lullaby and a Bach allusion. The alternation of textures gave the work its energy and variety, kept up through some characteristically extended climaxes.
Too many climaxes? Towards the end they tended to hector, especially in the Reproaches. Audiences are no longer congregations. But the rage was authentic MacMillan, true to the treatment.
Maltman sought out the lyrical core of this striking portrayal, while acknowledging its angry edge. Both choruses delivered with panache, while Sir Colin Davis – in a work commissioned for his 80th birthday – conducted the LSO with the directness he brings to one of the select few living composers that he champions.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens trailer: The most extreme fan reactions on Twitter
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust