MacMillan’s St Luke Passion


Thursday 4th December 2014 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

James MacMillan  conductor
Toby Spence  tenor
Richard Watkins  horn
CBSO Chorus  
CBSO Youth Chorus  

Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings 26′
Listen on Spotify

MacMillan: St Luke Passion (UK premiere) 73′ Watch on YouTube

James MacMillan has been called the greatest British composer since Britten, and his music is urgent, melodious, and burning to communicate. The UK premiere of his St Luke Passion – co-commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the CBSO Chorus – is a major event, and with the composer himself conducting our famous choruses, this is a chance to experience musical history in the making.


Review by Rian Evans, Guardian:

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…     “MacMillan sets the Lucan gospel in the English of the Catholic version but, unusually, he dispenses with soloists and indeed with the role of the evangelist. Instead, he gives the words of the gospel to the full chorus, and the words of Christ to young voices, sung here by the remarkable CBSO youth chorus. Their freshness and purity of sound was symbolic both of the sacrificial lamb of God and of the hope of the Christian gospel.

The simplicity of the word-setting, sometimes just monodic, and the clarity of MacMillan’s choral writing, notably in the unaccompanied sections, ensured a touching directness of expression. The instrumentation – small orchestra with double wind – also realised some striking effects, notably in the brass and timpani, with their occasional resonances of Verdi and Britten, and the Messiaen-like organ outbursts. Duetting oboes also recalled Bach’s passions, as did the emerging strain of the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden towards the end.

Like their younger counterparts, the CBSO chorus sang out beautifully.”


Review by John Quinn, MusicWeb, SeenandHeard:

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…     “One very interesting feature of this score is that the words of Christ are sung by a children’s choir, often singing in unison but sometimes in up to three parts. MacMillan explains that he took this step because he wanted to “examine [Christ’s] otherness, sanctity and mystery. Employing a children’s choir grants a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb.” I thought this approach worked extremely well and the confidence, discipline, freshness of tone, commitment and maturity with which the young singers of the CBSO Youth Chorus carried out this testing assignment is beyond praise. Clearly Julian Wilkins, who played the crucial organ part in this performance, had trained them scrupulously, not just in the notes but in the spirit of the music

The adult choir carries the main burden of the music and I wondered how this would work in practice as compared to the more conventional approach of having a soloist narrator. I think MacMillan’s decision was completely vindicated, not least because, shrewdly, he varies the choral textures. So some passages are sung by either male or female voices – or a section of the respective voices, such as the tenors – while elsewhere the full choir is deployed, sometimes singing homophonically and at others in more complex polyphony. The music, while far from impossible, I judge, is by no means easy and there are a number of passages where the need for rhythmic precision is especially demanding. On just one occasion, when telling of how Simon of Cyrene was obliged to help carry the cross, the tenors were not quite unanimous in articulating the difficult rhythms but this was an isolated blemish in what was a hugely impressive performance by the CBSO Chorus. Trained as usual by Simon Halsey, the choir seemed to be in complete command of the music and they sang with great commitment as well as accomplishment. In short, this was a typical CBSO Chorus performance.”     …


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…      “Under the composer’s fluent and encouraging direction, Simon Halsey’s chorus sang with all its legendary attack, projection and clarity of diction, well-balanced and controlled, taut with urgency, and partnered by a CBSO which did full justice to the resourceful imaginativeness of MacMillan’s modest scoring.

The 73-minute work (what a convenient length for a CD!) is sure in its dramatic pacing, and the restless stirrings in the orchestral bass line as Christ ascends into heaven are particularly effective, underpinning the ancient chant melody which the Chorus intones.”     …