Thursday, April 03, 2008

Colin Davis celebrates with New Passion

Sir Colin Davis has been celebrating his 80th birthday in style, conducting Berlioz with the French National Orchestra, Gerontius in Boston, the Fauré Requiem in Dresden, Messiaen in London plus Cosi Fan Tutte at Covent Garden, recordings of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (with Kissin), Creation and the Mozart Requiem, a Matthew Passion in Amsterdam and concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Quite a year for him. He was born in September 1927.

The culmination of this anniversary year was the world premiere in the London Barbican of a St. John Passion by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. Sir Colin has played quite a few works by this composer and asked him to write something for this occasion, the work to be repeated in Amsterdam, Boston and Berlin; quite a send-off for MacMillan, born 1959, the more so because the Passion was recorded last Sunday, 27 March.

MacMillan is a committed Catholic and that faith shines in the musicthat he has composed whose performance forms part of the LSO Belief series. This John passion lasts about 100 minutes, has a baritone soloistwho sings words from the gospel and other sources, presumably by the com-poser. The text is sung by a chamber choir for narration, a large chorusfor comment and some portions in Latin of a more reflective and objectivenature. The composer writes, "The instrumental approach was to make a sparse and lean texture (so there is limited percussion, no harps or the usual keyboards)"

This statement is baffling because the orchestral part is anything but sparse and I think it must be the loudest oratorio ever written. The brass and percussion, the big guns, are brought into prominence for 80% of the piece. Overkill. The trombones snarl continually, drummers whack away ear-splittingly and the big tam-tam gong sounds altogether too much. For contrast three solo violins provide a sort of overhanging filigree. There are quieter moments for the chorus (beautiful writing) towards the end of part one and similar moments in the second part, which contains a setting of the Stabat Mater poem. There are ten separate sections, the final one Sanctus immortalies, miserere nobis, being for the orchestra alone, mainly for strings, putting one in mind of the third act prelude to Parsifal. Curiously enough, in this movement the cellos quote the first four notes, unaccompanied, of the prelude to Tristan (but without the chord).

Each time Christus sings - a masterly performance by Christopher Maltman - the first vowel has many notes, rather like the incipit in an illuminated manuscript. The choral writing is fine and at times a wailing portamenti is used. Whenever Pilate speaks wood blocks sound, for all the world like popping corks. The texture is usually very dense; behind a layer of sound, an almost alien other instrument is heard, as if in another room. Despite the extreme loudness the music is basically geared to tonality, give or take an occasional Charles Ives-like use of two keys at once. One section that puzzled me and sent me to check with my Bible to see if it appeared there (no, it doesn’t) was entitled The Reproaches: Christ bitterly asking "My people, what have I done to you?" and listing all the wrongs done to Him. This struck me as alien, un-Christ like.
This music has a soul, sincerity fairly batters the senses. But it impresses, rather than moving the emotions. No doubt it is useless these days to expect melodies that stick in the memory or even melodic fragments that are memorable; MacMillan doesn’t beguile the listener or strike the heart as, say, Britten's War Requiem does. Sir Colin did a marvellous job: chorus, soloist, orchestra; all sounded totally prepared and absolutely committed.

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