Fortune favours the bold. Concert halls across Europe may be closed, but the NTR ZaterdagMatinee series has just succeeded in bringing together a full-sized chorus and orchestra for the premiere of James MacMillan's Christmas Oratorio. No audience, of course, but the radio broadcast is available on demand, free of charge.
The work should have had its premiere in London before Christmas, where it was to form the climax of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s year-long 2020 Vision Festival, which focused on outstanding new works of the 21st century. Instead, Amsterdam stepped in (the other two co-commissioning bodies are the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic).
The market is wide open for a big new choral work for Christmas. Nothing has come along to knock Handel’s Messiah off the top spot over the past 250 years, despite honourable efforts by Berlioz and Britten.
It is admittedly a near-impossible ask, but MacMillan gives it his best shot. His music has always achieved its biggest impact when he is writing either blazing orchestral showpieces (The Confession of Isobel Gowdie and Veni, Veni, Emmanuel) or deeply felt religious works (the much-loved Miserere or the St Luke Passion).
The Christmas Oratorio rolls in the best of both. Highly dramatic, colourful, by turns ecstatic and rapt, it throws all of MacMillan’s irons into the fire to forge a full-scale, 100-minute tableau on the theme of the nativity.
Perhaps taking his cue from Bach’s Easter Passions, MacMillan has assembled a multi-layered text. The story is largely told in extracts from the Bible, but extra resonance is provided by the interpolation of hallowed Latin hymns and four 16th- and 17th-century poems by Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton for soprano and baritone soloists.
Not all the narrative is equally successful — Bach’s decision to entrust it to a solo singer was wise, more elegant and easily intelligible — but everywhere there is a prodigious richness of invention.
The orchestral sinfonias are typical Macmillan showpieces, teeming with vivid ideas like Shostakovich or Walton in widescreen cinema mode. The sacred choral sections include a quietly joyous setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” for unaccompanied choir and solo violin, and an ineffably otherworldly “O magnum mysterium”, moving through orchestral clouds of cosmic dust. Baritone Christopher Maltman is eloquent in an extract from Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ's Nativity”, where the shadow of Britten looms large. Soprano Mary Bevan soars up to the fiery heights of Southwell’s “The Burning Babe".
Given the difficulty of rehearsing anything at the moment, it is understandable that the Groot Omroepkoor and Radio Filharmonisch Orkest were less precise than they might have been, but otherwise this was an authoritative performance, conducted by the composer himself. No other premiere during the pandemic has made such an impression.
By next Christmas, concert halls will surely (please) be open again. If they want to celebrate the festive season in memorable style, they need look no further.
Available to stream at nporadio4.nl/ntrzaterdagmatinee/gemist. Performance begins 15 minutes into broadcast