There aren’t many works in the classical repertoire entitled Christmas Oratorio, the only one frequently performed being the immense presence of Johann Sebastian Bach’s. So Sir James MacMillan has set himself a high bar by writing one, all the more so because he aspires to Bach’s combination of universality, complexity and emotional power: “Just look at Bach, who composed from a strongly confessional experience, but with a potential that reaches all of humanity.” As the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave the work’s UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall (it was first performed to an empty Concertgebouw in January), would MacMillan’s music reach that ambitious goal?

Roderick Williams, Lucy Crowe and Sir Mark Elder
© Mark Allan

MacMillan uses a formal structure of clean symmetry: two halves, each in the palindromic form Orchestral –Choral–Aria–Tableau–Aria–Choral–Orchestral (the orchestra, choir and both soloists take part in each central Tableau). The tableau texts are from the Gospels and carry most of the narrative, the choral texts (apart from the last) are from Latin liturgy; the arias are settings of poems by Southwell, Milton and Donne.

Whether you are Christian or not, the Christmas story is a potent narrative and the most important aspect of MacMillan’s work is that the Christmas story is told with all the drive, energy and urgency that it deserves. Nowhere was this more so than in Roderick Williams’ second aria, to words from Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Williams’ voice was suffused with immense nobility and although the words are full or metaphor and allusion, he put them across to the audience as clearly as if he were sitting with us by his fireside. Lucy Crowe shone brightly above the orchestra with matchless purity of timbre; in her second aria, Southwell’s The Burning Babe, she was every bit as cogent.

Members of the London Philharmonic Choir
© Mark Allan

But the highest honours of the evening must go to the London Philharmonic Choir and their singing of the Gospel texts: I don’t think I’ve ever heard such clarity of diction and precision of meaning from over 100 singers, working without the safety net of surtitles; they must have been drilled to within an inch of their lives. The choir created with virtuosity each of the moods that MacMillan’s music asked of them: reflection, joy, storytelling, adoration, cheeky jauntiness, exultation.

MacMillan’s choral writing is superb: always on the move, always interesting, always beautiful. His orchestral writing is filled with deft touches and the ability to carry us through the changes in mood: that’s helped by the symmetry of the work’s architecture but also due in large part to the ebb and flow that he creates within each section of music and by his intrinsic feel for the story he’s trying to tell. MacMillan also shows immense flair for the dramatic, setting groups of singers and instruments against each other or in collaboration together. 

Sir Mark Elder
© Mark Allan

There’s plenty of variety in the orchestral palette, with the most interesting features being the writing for brass and percussion and several notable passages for the celesta. The work isn’t the last word in orchestration: the brass, timpani and bass drum “shock and awe” effects are impressive the first time but get overused and the collection of string sounds is interesting rather than exceptional. But given the excellence of the solo vocal and choral writing, the orchestral writing more than does its job. Sir Mark Elder held it all altogether superbly, with the pace never flagging and perfect balance between voices and instruments.

Two hours of music went by in a flash, faster than any recent choral work I can remember. Particularly when performed at this quality, MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio deserves its place alongside Bach in the seasonal repertoire.