James MacMillan’s “St. John Passion” – a masterpiece

James MacMillan St. John Passion
James MacMillan St. John Passion

The London Symphony’s LSO label has released a live recording of James MacMillan’s St. John Passion.  It is already released in the UK, and will be available from Amazon next week, but is already available from iTunes as a download. (The iTunes download comes with a PDF digital booklet with program notes and complete text.)  I have long been a fan of Scottish composer James MacMillan, especially his choral music (Mass, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, several smaller choral works, “Cantos Sagrados“).  He is devoutly Catholic, and his earlier music espoused the concepts of Liberation Theology, so it seemed only a matter of time until he took on the Gospel Passion story.  Bach, Schütz, Penderecki and many others have used these texts to write their masterpieces; James MacMillan now takes his place in the list.

His St. John Passion is a triumph, combining MacMillan’s strengths of drama (what could be more dramatic than the crucifixion of Jesus?), incredible lyricism adjoining fantastic dissonance, extraordinary orchestration and fiercely difficult but idiomatically beautiful choral writing.

MacMillan uses the structure of a single baritone soloist in the role of the Christus, with a small chamber choir singing the connective narrative and a very large chorus singing all the other roles (Peter, Pilate, the chorus of Jews, etc.) and, at the end of each large musical segment, singing a non-biblical musical commentary in Latin.  The work ends at Jesus’s death with a a darkly-orchestrated instrumental-only movement, ending with an affirming melody in the low brass with chattering winds above.  In the LSO recording Christopher Maltman is the brilliant Christus.  The LSO Chorus is beyond reproach in their performance. Colin Davis, to whom the work is dedicated, is the conductor.  (One notes that at a few points, particularly in the closing instrumental movement, the conductor can be clearly heard humming along–this is a live recording.)

For me the mark of a great work is whether I not only carry it in my mind after hearing it, but continue to think about how it works.  At the end of my first listen straight through, I was dumbfounded and sat in silence for about ten minutes thinking about what I had just heard.  (I can imagine it must have been overwhelming in the concert hall.)  And in the several days since then I have been thinking about several passages, textures and just the mechanics of how MacMillan has assembled this austerely beautiful new addition to the musical Passion literature.

2 thoughts on “James MacMillan’s “St. John Passion” – a masterpiece

  1. I was smart enough to buy an advance ticket and lucky enough to attend the premiere of this amazing work at the Barbican in London last April. It was indeed an unforgettable occasion.

    I came across your blog while searching the web for a place to buy a download (no success so far, Amazon.com doesn’t sell downloads to Canada and I avoid itunes), but I noticed that Colin Davis is conducting the work in Amsterdam on April 3, 2009, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

    Gee, I haven’t been to Amsterdam since 1992, maybe it’s time to return…

  2. I would love to hear it live sometime. I hope that somebody in the States does it at some point in the future.

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