James MacMillan: St John Passion

Christopher Maltman; London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/Sir Colin Davis (LSO Live LSO0671)

1 February 2009 4.5 stars

MacmillanJames MacMillan's compositions must be among the most frequently performed works of all living composers and with the release of this live recording of his new St John Passion, it is not hard to see why. Sir Colin Davis, who has recently recorded other Macmillan works, chose him when he was offered the opportunity of a commission to celebrate his 80th birthday and consequently, this new Passion setting is dedicated to Sir Colin Davis and amounts to quite a big birthday present.

Lasting almost exactly 90 minutes, the work is crafted in two parts lasting for ten movements and scored for just one principle soloist, Christus, sung here by the baritone Christopher Maltman. There is also a Narrator chorus, and the London Symphony Chorus and The London Symphony Orchestra. This is the latest recording on the LSO Live label which was launched in 2000 and offers live recordings which provide an exciting snapshot of performance practice by one of our leading orchestras. It feels entirely appropriate, therefore, that a Passion setting should be presented in this way – unadulterated and live.

In his foreword printed in the sleeve notes Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says 'This is, after all, the story of an event which embraced the most extreme points of human sensibility…' and that seems to me to be the best way to introduce this work. From the very opening movement MacMillan shows that he can, and will, use a huge arsenal of colours to paint these extremes. Starting with the calm of the Narrators, the long melismatic entrance of Christus, and the first full chorus explosion 'Jesus of Nazareth' he neatly demonstrates the huge range of dynamics that run throughout this work. On the whole, louder passages dominate but there are cleverly woven textures that do allow time for reflection before one is recaptured by the swelling orchestral and choral forces.

Christopher Maltman has all the necessary presence for the part of Christus. His singing is supremely moving and impressively physical throughout and a lot of the excitement that he created in the live performance is captured on this recording. Davis and the LSO also seem to be on their best of forms; since there can be no doubt that this is a difficult and technically demanding score it is a full tribute to them that they can be so fluent across so many of MacMillan's demanding passages.

The choruses are equally impressive. The narrators are a tight ensemble of professional singers who fulfil the 'evangelist' role with an efficiency which is menacingly precise emanating a sense of foreboding throughout the work. It is, however, the larger chorus, the London Symphony Chorus who ultimately get the thrust of the story and they hurl themselves at the large and complex textures with an impressive relish. I admire their willingness to explore uglier realms of their voices when the dramatic thrust of the work demands; the traditional trap of trying to be too 'singerly' has been mercifully avoided here.

At the end of the work, after the high drama of 'The Reproaches', the 'Death of Jesus' is a quiet horror. The odd calmness like shell-shock that MacMillan so cleverly invokes is the culmination of what has been a very filmic score indeed. Then the tenth and final movement is an orchestral reflection, or as Macmillan explains 'a song without words'. This is both unexpected and necessary since the contours of this narrative leave us exhausted and in need of orchestral balm.

There are, of course, no comparisons to be made with other recordings yet but I cannot imagine that there could be any significant improvements on Sir Colin Davis' interpretation. This is a huge work blending film-score expanses of texture with complex and intellectualized references to other works and composers across a gigantic canvass that spans what is widely referred to as 'the greatest story ever told'. The only difference is that this Passion story feels like it is the first available in wide-screen, entirely enveloping and frequently overwhelming the listener. Not for the faint-hearted.

By Ed Breen