Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
Handel’s Messiah was one of my gateways into music as a child and I still find something in every performance, but it would be no bad thing if Sir James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio muscled in on its territory. In this work, which received its Scottish premiere from the RSNO and RSNO Chorus, conducted by the composer himself, MacMillan has made a work of comparable majesty, with the additional virtues for affordable performance of requiring 50 per cent fewer soloists and being half as long.
Without question one of the Scots composer’s most significant works, in a catalogue not short of those, its arrival was complicated by the vicissitudes of the pandemic, which closed down venues and occasioned a ban on choral singing. It is to be hoped that its more gradual and less trumpeted arrival leads to growing status with performers and public, because it is a quite remarkable piece.
The architecture of the oratorio is in itself a thing of beauty, a palindromic structure to each of the two parts (designed to incorporate an interval) which mirror one another in their individual sections.
Four instrumental “Sinfonias” frame the piece and immediately adjacent to them are liturgical choruses, with words (and one melody) from a number of Catholic sources. The soprano and baritone soloists have arias in both halves, setting the poetry of Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton, and in the centre of each part are two “Tableau” which use both chorus and soloists, the first using Matthew Chapter 2 to tell the story of the Nativity, the second setting the opening of John’s Gospel.
The composer has chosen his texts with great skill, placing due weight on the darker side of the Christmas story in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt, echoed in the dark tone of the Donne and Southwell sonnets. But there are also moments of lightness, in the opening and closing Sinfonias, for example, which clearly allude to the tinsel and Tinseltown sides of the “Holiday season.”
It is hard not to smile too at the repetitions MacMillan gives the choir to sing, ramming the continued currency of the story of Christ’s birth home in the Latin “Hodie” at the start of the Vespers setting at the end of Part 1, mirrored by “In the beginning” at the start of the Gospel chorus in Part 2.
These reflections and parallel musical allusions make for a work that is full of interest every step of the way, sometimes operatic, but with moments of intensely personal devotion. Some of the most obvious antecedents are in works by Britten, and the Milton setting – superbly sung by Roderick Williams – is the most Britten-esque MacMillan has ever sounded, but mainly it all sounds like MacMillan himself. Moments recall the drama of The Confession of Isobel Gowdie or Ines de Castro, others the quietude of the Seven Last Words or Strathclyde Motets.
Williams was paired with Rhian Lois, well-known to Glasgow audiences for her Musetta and Gretel with Scottish Opera, who was equally versatile in her full-voiced contribution. The work put in by the chorus, under their director Stephen Doughty was immense; this is far from an easy score and the choir gave MacMillan a magnificently expressive performance, as careful with unison singing on a single note (as in the last of the verses from St John) to some bold leaps in pitch.
The instrumental score is no less colourful, although MacMillan often uses the resources at his disposal with notable restraint before demanding full commitment and virtuosity. And while there were fine solo contributions from players across the platform, this was a season highlight for the whole orchestra as well as its excellent chorus.
Picture of Sir James MacMillan from rehearsal, courtesy RSNO