Music review: RSNO, RSNO Chorus & James MacMillan, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio is a work of genius, and this was a performance to match, writes Ken Walton
James MacMillan PIC: Philip GatwardJames MacMillan PIC: Philip Gatward
James MacMillan PIC: Philip Gatward

RSNO, RSNO Chorus & James MacMillan, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall *****

Almost three years ago, James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio received its world premiere in Amsterdam. Listening to it then, albeit via streaming (subsequently in an excellent 2022 recording by the LPO), convinced me it was a genuine masterpiece – a breathtaking choral epic steeped in traditional influences, yet very much for, and of, its current time.

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That impression was reaffirmed in the weekend’s Scottish premiere performances by the RSNO, its stalwart Chorus, soloists Rhian Lois and Roderick Williams, with the composer himself conducting.

Far from modelling itself on its famous Bach precursor, this Christmas Oratorio – using a juxtaposition of liturgical and biblical texts and early English poetry – delves fearlessly into the wider human experience, the innocence and purity of childhood challenged by life’s more turbulent realities, and everything in between.

Saturday’s Glasgow performance fully embraced that dramatic, at times violent, potential, its unflinching purpose articulated through the logic of MacMillan’s structuring – a 100-minute work divided into two hefty palindromes – but equally ignited by animated conflict operating at so many levels.

Right at the start of the opening orchestral Sinfonia (one of four interspersed throughout), the combination of ominous wind tremors and a playful music box theme on celeste cast a chilling spell. Renaissance-style a cappella singing from the RSNO Chorus, densely sublime, found itself subjected to bombastic orchestral interruptions; Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents unleashed their demonic ferocity. A coruscating setting of Hodie Christus Natus Est threw up an explosion of ecstasy compared to the spectral wonderment of O Magnum Mysterium. At the end of it all, an enchanting Gaelic lullaby appeared, mind-blowing and transformative, out of the blue.

Lois and Williams were a glowing presence, in arias owing much to Britten. BSL Interpreter Paul Whittaker eloquently enhanced the visual experience. A work of genius and a performance to match.

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