James MacMillan: St. John Passion

Maltman, LSO/Davis

Barbican, 1 March 2010 3 stars

Jonathan Biss credit Jimmy KatzWatching the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Colin Davis, and Christopher Maltman's barnstorming performance of James McMillan's 2007 St. John Passion in the Barbican last night was a strangely unfulfilling experience.

Any new setting of a text such as this one must justify its existence on many levels. It must answer the charge of tautology when set against extant canonical settings; it must justify itself on purely musical grounds as a valid and interesting addition to the text (in other words, it must say more than the text does on its own); it must grapple, perhaps above all, with the secular context and frame within which a sacred piece such as this will largely be performed and received in.

These tensions are somewhat unresolved in the work itself. Even if the existence of a new telling can reflect back on its own time interestingly, making a virtue of the conditions of its production and thereby perhaps re-sensitising its audience to a sacred aesthetics, I don’t feel that this particular account is successful in doing so. It is a work in which its composer puts his somewhat mundane harmonic and orchestral language to the service of an extreme, ancient form of religiosity – a religiosity founded on sanctification, dread, and awe – that has ironic echo in the Torture Porn that young men so inadvisably make and consume in our own century.

This is a drama where whispers and hearsay, and cruelty and terror, no less than God and Jesus, may well be conveyed ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS. The incessant clambering of the very large chorus and the thrashing brass and gongs to proclaim the incredible seductiveness of power, death, and worship (which is surely the libidinal affect that we take away from their performance?) asserts a mystification where there should be empathy. The very human drama of an ancient religion (Judaism) getting confronted with someone declaring ex nihilo its wrongness (or at least its need to change), only for that person to be tortured unto death, is pushed into broad farce as an unknowable, ever-distant text on mystery. It was startling in this respect to remember throughout the performance Jesus of Nazareth's modernity; in evolutionary terms, he is almost as close to us as today is to yesterday.

These points bring me back to my original query of why and how such a work as this could exist. Macmillan's Passion tells us little about modern attitudes to religion, and it does not provide us with any new exegetical account of the text. Its musical achievements are limited. Macmillan handles the form well enough, showing economy in pacing throughout. His writing for orchestra is too often mediocre though; when so much of the world of tone and timbre has been opened up, his failure to produce a score that is anything other than only intermittently ear-catching is reprehensible (the relatively sparse orchestration he uses could have surely produced something other than string chords, brass rumbles, tub-thumping gong and drum, and occasionally glistening wind motifs). The balancing of large and narrator choruses with ensemble and soloist is, however, successful. The harmonic language, like the scoring and form, is mediocre; somewhat bland tonality is used as a guiding post, with shifting dissonance and open modality sometimes enriching the flow.

The performance was appropriately feral. The writing for the large chorus is one of the work's more interesting features. Here waves of energy and terraces of sound emerged throughout, much to the delight of the eye and ear, though it should be noted that at those points when the high men sing in isolation an unchecked tendency towards shouting on the one hand, and incredibly lax ensemble on the other, crept in. The smaller narrator chorus (which consisted of about 20 members, as compared to the 140 or so of the large chorus) were the most consistent performers all evening; they were buoyantly rhythmic in the Tormis-like Eastern European folk sounds of the first part, reedy and rich in the Middle Eastern modal inflections of the second, whilst their melding of chant purity and stile antico beauty in the second half was gorgeous.

The orchestra were as brash as they were required to be, with some nice contrasts however coming for instance in the molten string trills and low brass underneath the early appearances of Maltman, the wonderful bass clarinet interjections in part seven, and the incisive oboe and clarinet solos and duets throughout. Colin Davis was largely reduced to the role of time beater; only in for example the urgent tapering of sound on the luminous entrance of the large chorus at the conclusion of the second half did one feel something for his role other than ineffectual metronome meekly squaring up to marauding Vandals lustfully seeking blood.

Maltman's performance, especially, was urgent. His dark tone and robustly physical singing was revelatory in characterising a sturdy, strong Christus. The singer was apparently suffering from a sore throat, but the force of his vocal presence belied this; the malady was only evident in the occasional sense of restraint you felt as Maltman introduced higher notes, or as he prepared for climaxes by tapering his projection slightly. It was just a shame that he and the other musicians did not have something more profound or original to work with. The piece fails to adequately justify its own existence in terms of religious or contemporary exegesis, whilst its musical attributes fall far short of standards of invention and originality we find readily in other contemporary work.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: James MacMillan

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