James Macmillan’s approach to setting St Luke’s Passion is both distinctive and straightforward. He sticks almost unswervingly to the Gospel text, setting Chapters 22 and 23 in full, framed by a brief introduction that looks back to the Angel Gabriel announcing Christ’s birth to Mary and a postlude that covers the Ascension. And instead of soloists, he uses two choirs – a full adult choir in the “role” of Evangelist narrates the story, and a children’s choir sings the words of Christ, emphasising his innocence. This approach draws the attention away from any individual musician, and presents the music as corporate response to Christ’s story, one that feels very much in keeping with Macmillan’s own deep faith and his commitment to community music-making. The musical language itself is also quintessential Macmillan, full of his trademark sobbing Scottish snap, brightly intense harmonies and rising passages that aspire to reach heaven.

Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

The music for Christ’s words is divided into a spiritually symbolic three parts and was sung admirably by Sage Gateshead’s youth choir Quay Voices and the Girl Choristers of Newcastle Cathedral. There was some beautiful sustained and clear singing through Macmillan’s long, lilting lines, particularly in Christ’s long speech to the daughters of Jerusalem. The chanting of Christ’s prayers in the garden was also nicely done, creating stillness against the rising tension in the orchestra.

Much of the adult choir music is also chanted, which on the whole allowed the narrative to come through clearly, although there were a few moments when the diction from both choirs disappeared. There was some very good singing from the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia in the turbulent chaos of Macmillan’s fast polyphonic passages, for the crowds and the murmuring of the disciples around the table about who will betray Jesus throbbed with nervous energy. “Crucify him” built up steadily from a rumbling threat to a truly terrifying scream, with both choir and orchestra going at full power. The voice of Pilate was well characterised by the men, albeit a little weak on the lower notes, and the chorus’s final words as the voice from heaven was richly solemn, before the music disappeared into dizzying heights of impressively well-sustained humming.

One downside of Macmillan’s strict adherence to the Gospel text is that the story sometimes moves on too quickly, with no time allowed for reflecting on what’s happening: even the death of Christ is over in just one short sentence. However, Macmillan uses the orchestra very effectively to comment on the text, and adds orchestral interludes underlining some of the key moments. The strings added a heavenly glow to the ecstatic setting of Christ’s words that he will not eat again until he comes into his kingdom, and the mocking solo flute when Christ is being judged by the priests was a nice homage to Bach’s orchestration of the same scene.

Chapter 22 ends with Christ acknowledging his divinity, and Macmillan responds with a blaze of orchestral glory. A brief departure from the text breaks into this section, with Christ echoing the words of the Angel Gabriel to his mother, “Do not be afraid”, sung with quiet authority by the children, before a trumpet duet of truly fearsome proportions, high, sustained, and loaded with harmonic suspensions. The second half then begins with a wonderfully cinematic march, underpinned with a sinister drum beat to accompany Christ to his meeting with Pilate, whilst the strings added urgency. The orchestra kept up the pressure throughout Christ’s trial and death, until creating a brief moment of release and peace when the centurion acknowledges Christ’s innocence and the chorus sing about the watching women. Another searing orchestral passage then leads into the final section describing Christ’s ascension. Macmillan quotes Bach’s famous Passion chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” at this point, and it should have cut clearly through the texture, but was completely lost in the noise.

In almost every aspect, Sage Gateshead is perfectly set up to perform Macmillan’s St Luke Passion: the chamber orchestra, the children’s choir and the adult chorus are all part of the organisation’s fabric. One crucial part of Macmillan’s score was mostly absent though: the building does not have an organ, and the house-organ plus speakers that had been brought in for this performance was wholly inadequate. Organist Francesca Massey did her best, and we caught snatches of her virtuosity coming through the texture, but sadly the instrument was not up to the job, particularly not for the thunderous cluster chords that punctuate the text, and this robbed the piece of much of its dramatic power. Royal Northern Sinfonia did a lot to make up for what was missing, but in the end, the feeling was that we hadn’t really heard the whole piece.

**111