United Kingdom Britten, MacMillan. Toby Spence (tenor), Richard Watkins (horn). CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, James MacMillan (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 4.12.2014 (JQ)
Britten – Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943)
James MacMillan – St. Luke Passion (2012/13) (UK Première)
Some two years ago when I attended the première of James MacMillan’s Gloria his piece was coupled with a work by Britten that incorporates an important role for solo tenor; on that occasion the work was St. Nicholas (review). I don’t know if it was a coincidence but tonight the UK première of MacMillan’s St Luke Passion was preceded by another Britten work for tenor solo: his Serenade.
As is well known, Toby Spence endured a career-threatening – indeed, potentially life-threatening – illness a couple of years ago and it’s great news that he’s been able to make a full recovery, it would seem, and that he’s restored to vocal health too. Here he sang Britten’s music very well. His voice is strong in the bottom register and also has a good, clear top and he appeared well-suited to these settings. Not only that but he sang with intelligence and fine feeling for the music. Occasionally – most noticeably in ‘Nocturne’ – he employed some physical gesticulations. These were apt, not overdone and served to emphasise – if it were needed – his identification with the music. My only concern was that in an otherwise very good performance his words were not always ideally clear. Richard Watkins played the horn part quite superbly. I admired greatly the control that enabled him to play with magical softness in some passages of ‘Nocturne’ and he offered really powerful projection in ‘Elegy’. In ‘Dirge’ all the performers screwed up the tension incrementally in a most effective manner while both soloists – and the CBSO strings – ensured that the performance of ‘Hymn’ was gossamer light; the music had a real scherzando feel. At the end Watkins played the Epilogue offstage, the sound of his horn echoing most evocatively around the wings of the Symphony Hall stage and then into the hall itself. I don’t recall that I’ve previously seen James MacMillan conduct music other than his own – though I know he has conducted music by other composers on many occasions. He seems to have a very good and clear technique and his empathy with Britten’s piece was never in doubt.
MacMillan’s St John Passion (2008) is a work that hugely impressed me in the magnificent live recording conducted by its dedicatee, Sir Colin Davis (review). I’ve not yet had the chance to experience that searing piece in live performance so I was all the more eager to hear MacMillan’s new setting of the Passion story according to St. Luke.
I hope it won’t be thought odd if I say that one of the first things that impressed me about the new work was its sheer practicality. Let me explain. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the first performance of a contemporary piece in which the composer has made extravagant demands in terms either of the musical difficulty of the work or the resources required to perform it – or both. Such a lack of realism must inhibit further performances, no matter how excellent the piece. Now, MacMillan’s new piece is not without its challenges – far from it – but he’s taken a very pragmatic approach, deliberately placing the music within the reach of amateur choirs, albeit well-trained ones. So, a choir wishing to take on the piece won’t have to fund a large orchestra that includes, for instance, all manner of exotic percussion instruments. Instead, the scoring is for a relatively modest orchestra of six woodwinds, two horns and two trumpets, timpani and strings. There’s also a very important organ part. Nor will there be soloists’ fees to find: there aren’t any soloists; instead all the narration is sung by the adult choir and within that rubric MacMillan gives the chorus master discretion occasionally to use a semi-chorus or even soloists from within the choir, though I didn’t detect that approach had been followed on this occasion. I salute this realistic approach, all the more so since in no way does it constrain the musical invention.
For his text MacMillan has taken chapters 22 and 23 of St Luke’s Gospel, setting these chapters in their entirety. Thus the narrative begins as Jesus and his disciples prepare for the Last Supper and ends with Christ expiring on the cross and the centurion exclaiming ‘Certainly this man was innocent’. There are three additions to this text. The Passion narrative is preceded by a short Prelude which is concerned with the Annunciation. At the very end of the work there is an equally short Postlude in which the Resurrection is implied and the Ascension is briefly narrated. These additions are unconventional but I think they work both in a scriptural and musico-dramatic way. There’s a third, telling addition to the Passion Gospel text. In the middle of the work, as Chapter 22 gives way to chapter 23 at the point where Christ has been interrogated at the home of the High Priest and is about to face Pilate, MacMillan has interpolated a brief phrase, ‘Do not be afraid’. This is from Chapter 1 of Luke’s Gospel. It comes from the narrative of the Annunciation and the words have already appeared in MacMillan’s Prologue; repeating them here, as Christ moves towards his destiny, is very insightful, I think.
One very interesting feature of this score is that the words of Christ are sung by a children’s choir, often singing in unison but sometimes in up to three parts. MacMillan explains that he took this step because he wanted to “examine [Christ’s] otherness, sanctity and mystery. Employing a children’s choir grants a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb.” I thought this approach worked extremely well and the confidence, discipline, freshness of tone, commitment and maturity with which the young singers of the CBSO Youth Chorus carried out this testing assignment is beyond praise. Clearly Julian Wilkins, who played the crucial organ part in this performance, had trained them scrupulously, not just in the notes but in the spirit of the music
The adult choir carries the main burden of the music and I wondered how this would work in practice as compared to the more conventional approach of having a soloist narrator. I think MacMillan’s decision was completely vindicated, not least because, shrewdly, he varies the choral textures. So some passages are sung by either male or female voices – or a section of the respective voices, such as the tenors – while elsewhere the full choir is deployed, sometimes singing homophonically and at others in more complex polyphony. The music, while far from impossible, I judge, is by no means easy and there are a number of passages where the need for rhythmic precision is especially demanding. On just one occasion, when telling of how Simon of Cyrene was obliged to help carry the cross, the tenors were not quite unanimous in articulating the difficult rhythms but this was an isolated blemish in what was a hugely impressive performance by the CBSO Chorus. Trained as usual by Simon Halsey, the choir seemed to be in complete command of the music and they sang with great commitment as well as accomplishment. In short, this was a typical CBSO Chorus performance.
I need to hear the piece again to be able to appreciate the detail of the orchestral writing. At a first hearing the scoring is resourceful and consistently interesting and though MacMillan has deliberately limited the orchestral palette available to him there’s no lack of colour. For much of the time the instruments accompany the singers and so one’s attention is drawn to the words and away from the accompaniment, but there are two or three short orchestral interludes where the writing is particularly powerful. I admired the skill with which MacMillan frequently looks after his choir by ensuring either that they are given a discreet but clear cue note from the orchestra just before an entry or else that they are sensibly and relevantly supported by the instruments. This is a score which is as carefully crafted as it is emotionally engaged. Once again MacMillan’s practicality comes to the fore.
I mentioned earlier the composer’s intention to write a piece that is not beyond the reach of good amateur singers and in that aim I think he has succeeded. However, he’s been just as successful, if not more so, in composing a setting that engages with and communicates to the audience. The music has its fair share of dissonance but its tonal and melodic roots are very firm indeed. The piece is, I think, easier to assimilate at a first hearing than was the St John Passion though that does not mean it’s “easy” music: far from it. The music confronts the listener, often graphically, and tells the Passion story in a vivid, dramatic and convincing way. It’s an often unsettling piece and I found it impressive and moving. I thought it spoke volumes for the connection with the audience that after the work had achieved a quiet, mysterious close, the applause was initially respectful but soon swelled into a very enthusiastic ovation. I think the fact that the audience responded in that way was very fitting.
The composer’s direction of the piece was compelling. Clearly the music – and, even more so, the story that it relates – means a great deal to him though, as ever with this composer, although his deep personal faith is the catalyst he never seeks to ram his religious convictions down anyone’s throat. I suspect this may have been the first time that he’s conducted the work since the première, which took place in Amsterdam in March 2014, was conducted by Markus Stenz. MacMillan proved an expert advocate for his piece. Though there were a disappointingly large number of empty seats in Symphony Hall – I judge it was about half full – I hope he was gratified by the appreciative reception for his new work. The work, which is sung in English, played for about 74 minutes in this performance.
St. Luke Passion was a co-commission by the CBSO to mark the CBSO Chorus’s 40th anniversary. The CBSO’s commissioning partners included Stichting Omroep Musiek/NTR ZaterdagMatinee Amsterdam, Duke University, Soli Deo Gloria Inc. and the Britten Sinfonia. It is the Britten Sinfonia who will give the London première of the work, under MacMillan’s direction, in April 2015. The co-commissioning bodies are to be congratulated on making possible the composition of a very fine and important score which, after this magnificent performance, I’m impatient to hear again. I believe that James MacMillan plans to compose settings of the other two Passion Gospels, by St. Mark and St. Matthew. I hope he will soon fulfil that aim and follow up this gripping, moving and eloquent setting of the Passion according to St. Luke.
To read more about James MacMillan’s St. Luke Passion click here