The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra continues its recent tradition of commissioning a new Eastertide passion every four years. This year they commissioned two new works, Mystical Sacrifice by Djuro Živković and Nasimi-Passion by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. Symphonic fragments from Debussy’s incidental music for a mystery play about Saint Sebastian completed the programme. Performed last, Ali-Zadeh’s eruptive drama was an escalation of Debussy’s smouldering intensity. Between them, Živković’s cerebral meditation left an impression of emotional distance.

Gabriele D’Annunzio’s sacred and erotic ballet-play Le martyre de saint Sébastien, conceived with star dancer Ida Rubinstein as the Christian martyr Sebastian, flopped at its 1911 première. Debussy’s extensive incidental music, which includes passages for chorus and three female soloists, is rarely performed. One is more likely to hear its instrumental condensation, the Fragments symphoniques, arranged by André Caplet, who had helped Debussy meet his deadline by writing some of the orchestration for the play. With a huge orchestra Debussy creates the sheerest of textures. The sensuous melodies for the woodwinds seem suspended in the air, but the music, driven by an insistent undercurrent, never stands still. The concerted orchestra is not required to play at full volume until the ecstatic finale. Martyn Brabbins maintained a restrained tension, shaping the surging strings and brass into smooth waves. The slow build-up to the end was perfectly timed. The RCO's refined musicianship brought out the work's softly glowing colours. 

Živković’s three-part cantata Mystical Sacrifice is as orchestrally dense as the Debussy is transparent. The composer selected the text, in Church Slavonic, from the Orthodox Easter liturgy. The words celebrate redemption through Christ’s suffering and rejoice in the resurrection. The music, however, belies this optimism. Nervous clusters of fast notes precede the first entry of the chorus, which repeats elongated melismas over thick orchestral layers. At best the eddying choral lines project stagnant hope. In contrast, the tenor soloist’s lined are chopped up into disjointed syllables, suggesting a paralysing fear. This alternating between the monotonous repetitions in the chorus and the staccato solo voice forms the architecture of the music.

The orchestra produces an aggregation of dissonant sounds – buzzing strings, rattling percussion and sliding brass. The massive sound thins out in the second part, a Lament mostly for the tenor, then thickens again for the final chorus of praise. Despite the final “Hallelujahs” the total effect is underwhelming. The packed orchestration and repeatitious choruses give the work a static quality. Tenor Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts did not exude much confidence in delivering his decidedly difficult part. It seemed as if he had barely mastered the notes, let alone had time for any interpretation. Besides tackling the fragmented melody, he has to sing in falsetto, dip into very low notes and also declaim in a kind of shuddering sung speech. His hoarse singing did not help, but even with the tenor in better voice, the solo part could not have inspired anything stronger than discomfort.

Ali-Zadeh’s Nasimi-Passion is, on the other hand, unequivocally emotional. Although removed from the Christian tradition, its subject and text source, Turkic poet Imadaddin Nasimi, suffered, like Saint Sebastian, a gruesome martyrdom for his faith. Sebastian miraculously survived a volley of arrows, after which the Roman emperor had him beaten to death and thrown into a sewer. “Through my deeds I have become like God; I am the truth!” For writing verses like this one, Sufi mystic Nasimi was arrested for blasphemy and flayed alive in Aleppo in 1417. In Ali-Zadeh’s six-part passion, the poet's tenets are proclaimed in a baritone solo. Nasimi professes his beliefs in rising phrases, muezzin-like. Evez Abdulla sang them powerfully with airtight legato. Besides these fervent solos, the Nasimi-Passion contains numerous dramatic orchestral moments, starting with a turbulent overture and ending with a tumultuous choral finale that is silenced by a sole hopeful flute. Urgent motifs and ominous tremolos in the orchestra are a constant reminder of impending tragedy. Ali-Zadeh’s varies the mood constantly. Halfway through the work, she cites a Bach chorale from the St John Passion in a beautiful violin solo. She exploits the chorus by having the different sections respond to or sing against each other, making effective use of Sprechgesang. The Netherlands Radio Choir not only sang sonorously, but also produced the most fascinating susurrations. One of the women, uncredited in the programme, deftly dispatched two short supporting solos. Chorus and orchestra gave both these new works the luxury treatment, under Brabbins’ unswerving leadership. Only Ali-Zadeh, however, came close to evoking her subject in her music.