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There is great beauty in the Passions of J.S. Bach. MacMillan’s perception of Christ’s Passion hits us with a sharp sense of reality, particularly in his St John Passion, for there he brings home to us the brutality of the scenario – the dust and dirt, and the culpability of human beings leading to the final violent act. Yet alongside MacMillan’s music over the years, anger and serenity and contemplation walk hand in hand, and this can be heard in the St Luke Passion. Scoring for what the composer describes as a ‘Handelian chamber orchestra’ where an organ adds colour and texture to the orchestration, especially alongside the timpani (the only percussion), this Passion is one of redemption and reflection. The opening Prelude reflects on the Annunciation and the Kingdom of God, while the two main sections are taken from Luke chapters 22 and 23. Unlike Bach, this work doesn’t end in death: in a Postlude Macmillan portrays the more hopeful Resurrection and Ascension. This is a choral work that can be performed by a wide range of abilities. The role of the Evangelist is sung by a mixed chorus, mainly in four parts. In a masterly stroke, a children’s choir sings the role of Christ in unison or three parts, reflecting the three-in-one and also showing Christ may be in this world but is not of it. As the work progresses, MacMillan’s Gaelic influences come to the fore, as they have done over the years.

The Dutch forces give a powerful and riveting performance of this creative work. Only one thing marred the experience: in a very meagre accompanying booklet the text is conspicuous by its absence: you have to go on to the Challenge Records website (www.challenge-records.com) to find it, and also to find out that the text comes from the Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1966). Black mark, Challenge Records.

SHIRLEY RATCLIFFE Read the full review on Agora Classica

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