Music review: BBC SSO: The Last Supper

Martyn Brabbins
Martyn Brabbins
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Harrison Birtwistle’s “dramatic tableaux” The Last Supper is a curious and engaging concoction of anomalies. The subject itself, a reunion of its original guests some two millennia on, with review of the Christian project on the agenda under chairman Christ, smacks of Hollywood fantasy sequel.

BBC SSO: The Last Supper ****

City Halls, Glasgow

Over its two-hour course, the disciples regroup one by one, dressed in modern workday clothes; one or two in sharper attire having trod, like Judas, individual courses in life. Jesus appears, expresses his displeasure over the Holocaust etc, with thoughts of “could do better”. Suitably re-briefed and re-blessed, dinner ends and off they go. Date of next meeting? 4000AD?

Despite the subject matter, it doesn’t come over as a bitingly religious piece. Spiritual, yes, at least when Robin Blaser’s libretto could be heard, which was rarely the case in this otherwise compelling semi-staged performance by the BBC SSO, BBC Singers and solo cast under Martyn Brabbins. Note: surtitles needed.

So it was largely left to Birtwistle’s score to make the point, which in its own strange way was a hugely satisfying outcome. His music has a universal quality: literally, in the way it encompasses myriad references, from ancient exoticism to reinvented medievalism to out-and-out modernism; spiritually, in the pungent colourings that illuminate the largely linear narrative of the main characters.

Of that cast, Roderick Williams’s cultish Christ, Daniel Norman’s sinister Judas and Susan Bickley’s Ghost shone like beacons. And I loved the static group tableau recreating Da Vinci.