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 Recording of the Week  Passion settings by James MacMillan and JS Bach

The Easter season invariably sees performances and recordings of the Passion story's many musical settings, and this week an old and a new one come out almost simultaneously – Markus Stenz and the Netherlands Radio Choir and Orchestra give us the world premiere recording of MacMillan's bold new setting of the narrative according to St Luke, while the Academy of Ancient Music breathe new life into Bach's immortal St Matthew Passion. The vast difference between these two works – although MacMillan acknowledges the influence of Bach on his thinking – serves to underline the sheer variety of musical responses that the story of the Crucifixion has inspired over the past two millennia.

James MacMillan
James MacMillan

MacMillan's take is, characteristically, both orthodox and innovative. Strikingly, he chooses to book-end the Passion narrative proper with passages concerned with the Annunciation to Mary and the Ascension. This makes a lot of sense both from the point of view of musical variety (relieving a potentially monotonous emphasis on grief and suffering) and indeed from a theological perspective, since the Crucifixion is neither the beginning nor the end of the story.

In the Passion setting itself, he largely dispenses with soloists; the Evangelist, for example, takes the form of homophonic, declamatory chordal writing for the choir. Whereas the Evangelist in a Bach Passion is generally regarded as a kind of semi-dispassionate storyteller – never directly involved in the action, though they may give a moving description of it – the forceful choral narrations of MacMillan's work are much more closely involved. Giving all the narrative text to the choir brings them fully into the story in a way that the chorales and choruses of Bach somehow do not. The use of a children's choir for Jesus's own utterances is a further intriguing choice – the parallel of innocence and guiltlessness is clear.

Much of what can be said about the St Matthew Passion has, of course, already been said, and its sheer musical power speaks for itself. Still, the Academy of Ancient Music's new recording achieves the difficult task of bringing something new to the work; indeed there are a few changes that caught me rather by surprise, including a simple chorale in place of the beautiful “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” that closes the first half. This brings it to a rather abrupt ending, but in doing so perfectly reflects the suddenness of the disciples fleeing. The following number – “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin”, normally sung by an alto – is here given to the bass; the sleeve notes suggest that this gives a greater sense of universality to the message.

Richard Egarr
Richard Egarr

There's no struggling viola da gamba to portray Jesus' hauling of the Cross towards Calvary in “Komm, süßes Kreuz” - here it's replaced by a lute, and the difference is enormous – seeming to evoke the intimate setting of the lute-songs of Dowland or Byrd, it gives a completely new and very much more personal spin to the text.

The crowd's outbursts are, to put it mildly, fast – almost frenziedly so. The first cry of “Laß ihn kreuzigen” is furious enough, but the ferocity is turned up even further in the second, and the music feels like it's only just under control – just like the near-riot described in the text. Ashley Riches' response as Pilate to the mob is an angrier one than is common; indeed this theatrical approach from the soloists is a theme throughout, and James Gilchrist's Evangelist surely ranks as one of the finest on disc.

I personally missed some of the ornaments I'm used to in an unusually plain “Erbarme dich”, but it's testament to Bach's compositional skill that this aria is invariably heartbreaking, no matter how many times one hears it and what minor touches individual singers may put to it. Sarah Connolly's performance here is no exception, and her rich contralto tone makes for an interesting contrast with the countertenor voice that's often heard today. Perhaps the highlight of the whole Passion (for me, at least) is “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein”, here sung flowingly and movingly by Christopher Maltman.

These two Passions are about as different as it's possible to be, yet in their own ways they are both profoundly moving responses to the age-old story of Easter. There's really no choosing between them!

MacMillan: St. Luke Passion

Peter Dicke (organ), Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, Netherlands Radio Choir & National Youth Choir, Markus Stenz

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Bach, J S: St Matthew Passion, BWV244

James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Jesus), Ashley Riches (Pilatus), Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Sarah Connolly (alto), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Christopher Maltman (bass), Richard Egarr (director & harpsichord), Academy of Ancient Music & Choir of the AAM

Available Formats: 3 CDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC