The week in classical: the Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan; LPO / Jurowski | Classical music

Iimmediacy, radiance and ability to welcome the past into the present: not everything to say on the subject, but an attempt to capture the essence of James MacMillan’s music. For MacMillan (b.1959), a Roman Catholic born in Scotland, spirituality has been key to his work from a childhood fascination with plainsong and the liturgy. His faith has allowed him to freely ride against fashion, bringing together a large and responsive audience with him, from all walks of life.

Who else would dare to write a feature film Christmas Oratorio (2019), with the example of Bach and that of Handel Messiah already taking up limited seasonal space available? And who would begin this work, after a gurgling wood and singing Scottish tune, with that most tinkling and sparkling instrument, the celesta – best known for its use in a sweeter Christmas favorite, the fairy dance of the Tchaikovsky’s sugar plums Nutcracker?

The celestial reverie is soon punctuated by a volley of solo timpani, unleashed anger. Human suffering, characterized by Herod’s massacre of the innocent, figures prominently in this two-part work, each half opening and ending with orchestral interludes. The texts, in Latin, English and Scottish Gaelic, are drawn from poetry, liturgy and scriptures, skillfully interwoven. Composed for a medium sized orchestra, with a percussion section comprising the various timbres of Charleston, Cabasa, Timpani, Vibraphone and Xylophone, as well as Harp and Celesta, it achieves a sonic range by economical means.

The entire composition – sound British premiere given by the work’s co-curators, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Mark Elder – is torn by brief bouts of fortissimo as brutal as the four-part choral writing is sometimes exquisite and muffled. The babe-in-manger chorus at the start of part 2, O magnum mysterium, Matins on Christmas Day, could stand on its own, although this majestic work deserves full performance.

The two soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe at her best and expressive and articulate baritone Roderick Williams, deliver meditative tunes – poetry by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton, sometimes with an elaborate Bach-style violin solo (Pieter Schoeman ). The London Philharmonic Choir (director Neville Creed) sang impressively throughout, tenors outnumbering sopranos, violas and basses, sometimes needing a few extra recruits, but still musical and precise. No surprise to find the public ovationing orchestra, choir, conductor, soloists and especially composer.

Further cheers erupted on Wednesday when Vladimir jurowski, for 14 years revered principal leader of the LPO, returned for the first time in his new role emeritus (also relayed live on BBC Radio 3). There was not a weak link in this ambitious program. The world premiere of Brett Deanis revised No worries was miasmic and scintillating, microscopic in sonic detail, bold in aim (with superb playing, in particular, main violas, low woodwinds, trombones, percussion – OK, let’s say everyone).

In two Russian works from the mid-20th century – Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op 77 and Rachmaninoff Symphony No.3 – the confidence and virtuosity of the players have borne golden fruit. The Rachmaninoff was tense, intense, poetic. The Shostakovich engages in the same struggle MacMillan faces in his Oratorio: a singing beauty constantly rising above the aural brutality, encapsulated in staggering cadence. Jurowski might have been the returning hero, but the solo violinist, the phenomenal Alina ibragimova, was the shining star of the night.

Ratings (out of five)
James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio
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LPO / Jurowski
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  • James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio is available to listen in its world premiere in January 2021 in Amsterdam

  • The London Philharmonic Orchestra concert with Vladimir Jurowski and Alina Ibragimova is on BBC Sounds


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