James MacMillan, St John Passion: London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

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James MacMillan
James MacMillan

James MacMillan, St John Passion
(for a review of the BSO performance, click here)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Christopher Maltman, Baritone

James Mallinson producer 
Jonathan Stokes for Classic Sound Ltd sound engineer
Recorded April 2008, Barbican, London 
Catalogue number – LSO0671
UPC – 822231167129

The Scottish composer James MacMillan is not nearly as well-known in the United States as he is in Britain. Hence it is a good thing that an outstanding recording of his St. John Passion is available from LSO Live for purchase as discs or as an iTunes download, as the BSO prepares to perform it under Sir Colin Davis, who commissioned the work as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. There is no better introduction to a composer or to a work than simply to listen to it, and a recording fills the requirement nicely, especially of a performance by Sir Colin, who has a special gift in presenting unfamiliar music with the passionate convication that it is the very best of its kind. Some twenty years ago I had the privilege of hearing him conduct a performance of Berlioz’ Les Troyens, which I already knew and admired from his Philips recording…but that performance at the Barbican was like no other I have heard before or since! In this performance of James MacMillan’s St. John Passion Sir Colin projects a similar conviction. He has adopted a few contemporary composers (Michael Tippet is another of them.), and he never fails to be a passionate and loyal advocate.

The first question—unfortunately—even relatively experienced listeners of contemporary music ask is “just who is this guy?” which can be translated as “is he conservative or experimental? Am I going to be able to sit through it?” Last week at Carnegie Hall I saw a few people walk out at the prospect of twelve minutes of Schoenberg. At ninety minutes MacMillan’s Passion will require somewhat more patience, but I can reassure the fearful that anyone who is familiar with Britten will be comfortable with MacMillan, although his style ranges freely from medieval models to the harshly dissonant and the microtonal. I believe the audience will be struck by the Passion as an intense dramatic narrative alternating with the contemplative, which is already inherent in much of the Catholic and Protestant Good Friday liturgies, as well as J. S. Bach’s Lutheran treatments. As for who James MacMillan is, I’d say that he is just who he is. It is irrelevant to call him a musical progressive or conservative. Like Elgar and Britten, he makes a living by writing music that the public will support through attendance and the purchase of recordings. He is just who he is, the descendant of Irish Catholics who settled in Ayrshire, southeast of Glasgow, who acquired a love of music from his grandfather, and who grew up hearing and singing the Passion of St. John as a part of the Roman Catholic Good Friday liturgy. MacMillan, born in 1959, is a fine example of contemporary European—and British—culture, in which sectarian and regional voices can have a free voice. Much of Britain’s greatest poetry and music has been in the Catholic tradition, although Robert Southwell was hanged for his faith and Edward Elgar was excluded from Oxford and Cambridge. MacMillan has been keenly sensitive to human rights abuses and atrocities in the contemporary world and has written eloquent music about it, like his Búsqueda, based on liturgy as well as the testimony of the Argentinian Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, whose children disappeared during the dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s. In this way MacMillan brings together the music of traditional Catholic liturgy and a keen sensitivity to the human rights abuses of our own time. MacMillan’s Passion is as much founded in humanism as in the love of Christ. Whether one is a Christian or not, one can be moved by MacMillan’s dramatic setting in the context of one’s sympathy or outrage on behalf of any fellow human being who has been ostracized, tortured, or killed for unorthodox beliefs. In his humanistic spirit he includes the Improperia (or “Reproaches”), not a part of the Gospel of St. John, but of the Good Friday liturgy, in which Jesus expresses human indignation at his treatment by his own people in three quotations from the Old Testament prophets alternating with the Trisagion, a bilingual invocation of the Deity in Greek and Latin, praising His holiness, strength, and immortality and entreating Him for mercy, sung antiphonally during the Adoration of the Cross.

Throughout the first nine movements the dramatic interchange in English among a small narrative chorus, a large chorus, and a baritone concludes in meditative passages from he Latin Vulgate. The tenth, final movement is entirely instrumental.

In the LSO Live recording, the singing of the London Symphony Chorus is most sensitive and expressive, ranging from airy, archaic passages to massed expressions of fear, sympathy, and anger. The playing of he LSO is superb, and Sir Colin’s direction is powerful. He cuts straight through the circumstances to the essence of the music and communicates it as a powerful and universally valid statement of the human condition. Christopher Maltman sings with compelling restraint and taste. For the most part the recording is up to LSO Live’s best standards, which are about the best one can expect from a live performance; however in the First Part I heard a disturbing level of congestion in the loudest passages of full chorus. I’ve heard this in loud choral passages at the Barbican, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere, but here the recording sounds a bit overloaded, that is, distorted. The problem disappears eventually, and the second disc of the set is impeccable. This set is highly recommended, whether you are attending any of the BSO performances or not. You should still not miss the opportunity to hear this deeply moving work live.

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