Saturday, December 4, 2021

Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

Threading through the past decade or so has been a series of big, specifically Christian works by Sir James MacMillan – such as the St John Passion, the Symphony No.5 titled ‘Le grand inconnu’ (the Holy Spirit) and European Requiem – to which can now be added his Christmas Oratorio, given its UK premiere by the London Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra, and vocal soloists Lucy Crowe and Roderick Williams, conducted by Sir Mark Elder. The LPO was due to give the world premiere, but it was Covid-cancelled, the honours going to the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in a broadcast no-audience performance from Amsterdam in January this year.

It’s hard to imagine a more bracing corrective to the explosion of festive winterval tat currently assailing eyes, ears and pockets. MacMillan is Roman Catholic, and his music sounds as the voice of a faith lived in the moment with robust pragmatism and much contemplation. The model for his Christmas Oratorio is Bach, but often closer to the latter’s Passion settings, those studies of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion that stop short of Easter triumph. Both of the forty-five-minute parts have a central tableau predominantly for chorus based on the gospels of Matthew and John, surrounded by Catholic liturgical texts in Latin and aria settings of poems by the Catholic martyr-priest Robert Southwell, as well as John Donne and John Milton, and the flagrant directness of Catholic Baroque imagery suits MacMillan well. Herod, the Wise Men, the Massacre of the Innocents and the Holy Family as refugees are the specifics of the first part; the tableau of the second, the quieter of the two, is based on the opening of John’s gospel, of Christ as the word made flesh.

Musical influences blend into acts of respect – Britten’s crafted artlessness in the child’s-play dance is the first thing we hear in the opening Sinfonia before the light-hearted celesta and woodwind texture thickens and ‘gets real’ in a way recalling War Requiem; the one reference to Advent expectation in the ‘O Oriens’ antiphon has choral writing fanning out magically over a Brucknerian brass chorale; sudden slips into heart-stopping reverence on words such as “Et incarnatus est” from the Credo, or the chorus’s hush as the Wise Men offer their gifts; the passages when joy is undermined by anticipations of pain – all have instantaneous expressive depth. As for the closing chorus and Sinfonia of Part One, its delirious Janáček-like exuberance really takes off.

MacMillan rises to every challenge he has set himself, especially those texts that get to the heart of the mystery of Christ’s birth, and you often wonder how he achieves orchestral effects in a score in which the only remotely out-of-the-ordinary instrument is the celesta. MacMillan’s plan – of narrative set against subjective, sympathetic response – is easy to follow, and he leads the way to passages of blistering revelation; his setting of ‘O magnum mysterium’ folding in and out of plainchant is just another example of words and music hitting it off with disarming candour. And don’t get me started on the violin solos seeded throughout the score (Pieter Schoeman on radiant form) or those stand-and-stare moments of pastoral stillness. It might seem all too much, but MacMillan handles it all with telling accuracy.

Lucy Crowe and Roderick Williams went head-to-head in terms of vocal range and beauty in their solos and duets; the London Philharmonic Choir was so on the ball its members might have been singing from memory; and Elder animated MacMillan’s irrepressible sense of drama, imagination and truth with irresistible fluency, matched by the LPO’s fabulously responsive playing.

A composer who can move from the particular to the universal as MacMillan does to succinctly wrap up this astonishing work – a violin solo leaking into a string quintet, leading to a brief full orchestra response then silence must be doing, well, quite something. The Netherlands Radio broadcast from January 15 is still available.