MacMillan : Christmas Oratorio

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

If recent Christmas celebrations turned out to be something of a damp squib for so many of us, thanks to Covid, the festive season’s fundamental message found a belter of belated expression in a new Christmas Oratorio by James MacMillan. Its world premiere, broadcast live from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus under the composer’s direction on Saturday afternoon, was nothing short of a Christmas miracle. 

Bombastic, seraphic, theatrical, esoteric, original, assimilative, introspective, extroverted, spiritual, down-to-earth: the list of opposites worthy of its description go on and on. That fact their compounded power seemed undimmed via radio says everything about this 90-minute work’s mesmerising impact, and of a performance, complete with soloists Mary Bevan (soprano) and Christopher Maltman (baritone), that hit just about every emotional button.

It’s a work that consumed the composer for over a year, completing it in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, which consequently played its part in quashing the intended London premiere in December by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, one of several co-commissioners of the oratorio that also include the Dutch orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The Dutch may have won the world premiere rights by default, but the others hope to have staged their own countries’ premieres by the end of this year.

What they all have for their money is something of enormous value. In the compositional sense MacMillan has pulled out all the stops. Forget the obvious spectre of the most famous and joyful of Christmas Oratorios, that of JS Bach. Yes, it was in MacMillan’s mind as he wrote his own response, but here is a version of the story that pits joy and childlike innocence against a murkier backdrop of turbulence, foreboding and fear.

Distant clarinet trills signal the start of the opening Sinfonia – there are four such instrumental sections framing each of the two halves – before a jaunty, carol-like melody casts its infant spell. Transferred to celeste, with its music box charm and just a hint of surreal menace, the spell is rudely broken by an ominous timpani solo. These elements recur in various guises throughout.

But that’s just the scene setter. The entire work consists of two large palindromes, each with a central Tableau guided by gospel narrative and surrounded by a reversed sequence of choruses and arias. The physical structure is unshakeably robust, but the content is a seething, visceral swarm of contrasts. Even the chosen texts place early English poetry by Southwell, Donne and Milton in potent contrast with the biblical.  

That’s familiar ground for MacMillan, and nothing exemplifies it more than the juxtaposition of his signature a cappella choral style – sumptuous echoes of Renaissance polyphony and polychoral density – and the unfettered ferocity and mind-blowing theatricality of his orchestral writing. There were moments in this absorbing performance – the setting of O Magnum Mysterium with its muted whirlwind of scales and glissando harmonics for one – that were transcendently heart-stopping. 

Equally, the full-blown venom of Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents did not pull its punches, nor did the chorus setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est, its febrile rhythmic electricity owing much to  the minimalist glitter of John Adams, hold back on its ecstatic intent. 

There is unadulterated sweetness too: in the Brittenesque fragility of Mary Bevan’s opening aria, a setting of Robert Southwell’s “Behold a Silly, Tender Babe”; in the warm intensity which Christopher Maltman attaches to a responding setting of John Donne’s Nativity; and most of all in a final chorus, an idyllic arrangement of a Scottish lullaby and one of those transformative moments where MacMillan’s sense of time and place borders on theatrical genius, beyond which the calming valediction played out by the orchestra in its closing hymn-like Sinfonia strikes a magical conclusion.

To say this is one of MacMillan’s crowning achievements to date is not mere hype. Evident even from this broadcast premiere was a sense of effortless technical assurance servicing the needs of infinite expressive possibilities. His is a style that draws honestly on multiple influences – a Bruckner-like scoring for lower brass, a Britten-like sensitivity to achieving simplicity out of harmonic guile, an adherence to the subliminal power of 16th century choral techniques, the density of the Wagnerian peroration – but remarkably assimilates these into a personalised wholeness that speaks entirely for itself, by itself, and without pretension.

This Christmas Oratorio is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Scottish orchestras ought to be queuing up to give the Scottish premiere once regulations allow. 
Ken Walton

You can listen to the concert again via