MACMILLAN St Luke Passion
Words taken from the Magnificat make a somewhat surprising opening to this second in the projected series of four Passion settings (the St John was completed in 2007) from James MacMillan. While the work’s Prelude sets a text which is not part of the Passion narrative (the complete text, sadly, is not included with the disc), it marks the composer’s intention to frame the Passion story as related in chapters 22 and 23 of St Luke’s Gospel with rather more optimistic texts.
Apart from some highly effective moments of controlled improvisation from the orchestra in both Prelude and Postlude, designed to convey an impression of the eternal mystery of the Kingdom of God, the musical language is direct and, typical of MacMillan, unashamed to show its influences (Stravinsky comes very much to mind with the rhythmically incisive male chorus opening of the setting of chapter 22, while Bach is invoked near the end of chapter 23). It is certainly a beautifully written work which focuses more on conveying the theology than the humanity of the Passion. For this reason the individuality of solo voices is avoided, with the adult chorus delivering the words of the Evangelist and the children’s chorus the words of Christ (implying, as MacMillan suggests, the innocence of ‘Christ as the sacrificial lamb’).
Markus Stenz directed the world premiere of MacMillan’s St Luke Passion in Amsterdam, and many of those original performers are involved on this disc. Stenz has got completely into the spirit of the music and creates a performance which is always compelling and occasionally electrifying (the devastating crescendo as the crowd cry ‘Crucify Him’ is truly awe-inspiring). The singers handle their heavy workload well, with no flagging of intensity or lack of precision, but it is the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and especially organist Peter Dicke, who shine most in this recording. The virtuoso organ part, demanding much from the instrument itself (a huge sustained cluster in chapter 23 takes dangerous risks with wind supply), dovetails splendidly with an orchestra which, while described as ‘modest’ in size, nevertheless packs a powerful punch with some fabulously full-blooded and scintillating playing.