The journey to the cross: Music for Maundy Thursday

The journey to the cross: Music for Maundy Thursday
The BBC Singers, Sir James MacMillan
St John’s, Smith Sq. 18 April 2019 

MacMillan: Strathclyde Motets; Choral Sequence from the St John Passion
Gesualdo: Responsories for Maundy Thursday

The BBC Singers invited the celebrated Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan to devise and conduct a programme of choral music for Maundy Thursday in celebration of his 60th birthday. MacMillan chose to contrast selections from his Strathclyde Motets with movements from Gesualdo’s Responsories for Maundy Thursday. It concluded with MacMillan’s dramatic Choral Sequence from the St John Passion. The Strathclyde Motets started as an initial commission for one motet for the Strathclyde University Chamber Choir. Between 2005 and 2010 it was expanded into the current 28 communion motets on Latin texts, intended for amateur choirs, but far from straightforward in the vocal techniques needed.

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The opening Cum vidisset Jesus had the upper voices slowly unfolding above the chorale-like lower voices. The ends of phrases dissolved into washes of atmospheric sound, with a repetitive mantra at Ecce mater tuo towards the end. A distinctive feature of MacMillan’s music came in the following Qui metitabitur (the most recent of the Strathclyde Motets) with its plethora of tiny ornaments, based on the Gaelic psalm-singing tradition. Another series of repetition of words came with the concluding fructum suum in tempora suo

The first of Gesualdo’s Responsories for Maundy Thursday followed ,the extraordinary style of his harmonic writing making it difficult to realise that this was music from several centuries ago. MacMillan pieces tend to combine a variety of styles into a single piece, reflecting aspects of the underlying text.  Videns Dominus combined chant with a range of contrasting textures while Mitte manum tuam, featured a haunting final ‘alleluia’. His powerful opening of Pascah nostrum immulatus est led toimpressive solos from soprano Emma Tring and alto Katherine Nicholson, the former soaring over the underlying texture.

The second half saw just three pieces, starting with the Strathclyde motet Domine no secundum peccata nostra with violinist Zara Benyounes weaving a filigree of arpeggio figures around the vocal lines before adding a high melody and an elegiac cadenza-like solo. Gesualdo’s Benedictus Dominus Deus, an alternatim setting with chant interspersed between rather conservative homophonic verses, leading to a well-controlled climax on Illuminaire his.

The Choral Sequence from the St John Passion brings together extracts from MacMillan’s 2008 St John Passion. It was prefaced by the Bach chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O sacred head, sore wounded) which segued into crashing fff chords from the St John’s, Smith Square that made the lady sitting in front of jump out of her seat. They were separated by gentle note clusters. Further dramatic interventions from the organ (played with impressive clarity and enviable technique by Richard Pearce) punctuated the other movements from the Passion with a wonderful range of musical textures and organ colours, including a low growl at the start of Peccantem me quotidie and a series of plangent solo stops during the expansive Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, ending with notes at the extreme range of the organ.  The concluding Stabat Mater was accompanied by a wash of organ string tones as the wash of vocal sounds slowly morphed into recognisable Bach extracts in the concluding lullaby.

The BBC Singers were outstanding in what was a challenging programme. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard here for up to 30 days. The Choral Sequence from the St John Passion starts at about 1h32′.