At the climax of James MacMillan’s St Luke Passion, after Christ has breathed his last on the cross, the composer summons up a cacophonous orchestral fury. But amidst thunderous, discordant brass blooms an ethereal chorale – a direct quotation of Bach’s O Haupt Voll Blut und Wunden. This is an audacious gesture handled with maturity and woven into a highly distinctive musical language.
MacMillan brought this Passion to the UK in two Easter performances: a Good Friday performance at Kings College, Cambridge, and a London premiere at the Barbican, having had international and UK premieres in Amsterdam and Birmingham in 2014. After the massed forces of his St John Passion, this St Luke is written for just two dramatic roles, supported by organ and a reduced orchestra. The Chorus is sung by an adult mixed choir, and Christus by boy trebles with a soprano semi-chorus. There are already plans for a St Mark and St Matthew – each for increasingly smaller ensembles.
Despite reduced forces, MacMillan’s expansive and evocative orchestral writing makes this a dramatic and almost filmic Passion. Often violent and grotesque, MacMillan captures the visceral horror of the Passion through gruesome brass discordances, crashing timpani, or rumbling contrabassoon. Yet it is also full of mystery, matched by radiant organ interpolations and shimmering orchestral heterophony.
Trebles from London’s Cardinal Vaughan and Trinity schools, alongside the Britten Sinfonia Voices, really conjured up an unearthly and transcendent Christ, with lilting, mysterious vocal lines often harmonised in thirds – unmistakable shades of Britten. At other times, this Christ was dejected and utterly human, uttering on a monotone: ‘It is enough,’ ‘No more of this!’
Violence and earthliness; ethereality and mystery - all part of MacMillan’s ‘magpie modernism’. It is also a Passion with a significant nod to the past. At his last supper, Christ breaks bread and shares wine to a Bachian cycle of fifths. A more jaunty and mystical figuration of this harmonic gambit recurs throughout, threading Bach and modernity into a transcendental theological vision.
MacMillan’s St Luke is an ambitious project matched by some masterful vocal and orchestral writing. Yet its profundity was no doubt amplified by Kings College Chapel’s extraordinary, unearthly acoustic.