Immediacy, radiance and an ability to welcome the past into the present: not all there is to say on the matter, but an attempt to pinpoint the essence of James MacMillan’s music. For MacMillan (b.1959), a Scottish-born Roman Catholic, spirituality has been key to his work since a childhood fascination with plainchant and liturgy. His faith has empowered him to freewheel against fashion, gathering a large and responsive audience, from every domain, with him.
Who else would dare write a full-length Christmas Oratorio (2019), with Bach’s own example and Handel’s Messiah already cramming the limited seasonal space available? And who would start this work, after a gurgle of woodwind and a lilting Scots air, with that most tinkling, twinkly of instruments, the celesta – best known for its use in a sweeter Christmas favourite, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker?
The celestial reverie is soon punctuated by a volley of solo timpani, an anger unleashed. Human suffering, characterised by Herod’s massacre of the innocents, figures prominently in this two-part work, each half opening and closing with orchestral interludes. Texts, in Latin, English and Scottish Gaelic, are drawn from poetry, liturgy and scripture, deftly interwoven. Scored for a moderate sized orchestra, with a percussion section including the different timbres of hi-hat, cabasa, timbales, vibraphone and xylophone, as well as harp and celesta, it achieves sonic range via economic means.
The entire composition – its UK premiere given by the work’s co-commissioners, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Mark Elder – is riven with short fortissimo outbursts as brutal as the four-part choral writing is at times exquisite and hushed. The babe-in-manger chorus at the start of Part 2, O magnum mysterium, from the matins for Christmas Day, could stand alone, though this majestic work deserves full performance.
The two soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe at her ethereal best and baritone Roderick Williams, expressive and articulate, provide meditative arias – poetry by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton, sometimes with elaborate, Bach-like violin solo (Pieter Schoeman). The London Philharmonic Choir (director Neville Creed) sang impressively throughout, the tenors, fewer in number than sopranos, altos and basses, occasionally sounding in need of a few more recruits, but always musical and accurate. No surprise to find the audience giving orchestra, chorus, conductor, soloists and, above all, composer a standing ovation.
More cheers erupted on Wednesday when Vladimir Jurowski, for 14 years the LPO’s revered principal conductor, returned for the first time in his new emeritus role (also relayed live on BBC Radio 3). There wasn’t one weak link in this ambitious programme. The world premiere of Brett Dean’s revised Notturno inquieto was miasmic and glistening, microscopic in sonic detail, bold in aim (with superb playing, especially, from principal violas, low woodwind, trombones, percussion – OK, let’s say everyone).
In two mid-20th century Russian works – Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op 77 and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 3 – the players’ assurance and virtuosity bore golden fruit. The Rachmaninov was taut, intense, poetic. The Shostakovich engages in that same struggle MacMillan confronts in his Oratorio: songlike beauty constantly rising above aural brutality, encapsulated in the stupefying cadenza. Jurowski might have been the returning hero but the solo violinist, the phenomenal Alina Ibragimova, was the night’s brilliant star.
Star ratings (out of five)
James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio ★★★★★