RSNO / Sir James MacMillan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Keith Bruce

five stars

IT was – and is certain to become – one of those “Were you there?” occasions: the entire evening given over to the Scottish premiere of a major work by Scotland’s pre-eminent composer, one that requires the full forces of our national orchestra and its chorus and tells a story everyone knows in a way that is both ancient and thrillingly contemporary.

As a consequence of the Covid pandemic, Sir James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio made its first appearance in Amsterdam almost two years ago, the city’s famous Concertgebouw empty of audience and the concert streamed live. With the composer once again on the podium, this weekend’s performances let his home crowd experience the visceral sensation of what has already been acclaimed as a masterwork live for the first time.

It is one of his most brilliantly constructed – and eminently readable – pieces of work, which begins in a way that is just short of sleigh-bells and tinsel with the trill of a clarinet and tinkling celeste (the keyboard, played by Lynda Cochrane, having an emblematic role throughout). This surprising allusion to a “John Lewis advert” sort of Christmas is part of a journey that will visit multiple views of the season, the chorus singing the St Matthew gospel version of the Nativity and then St John’s expression of its meaning, and soloists soprano Rhian Lois and baritone Roderick Williams having arias that set the words of poets Robert Southwell, John Donne and John Milton.

They also provide the voices of prophets and angels to complement the Biblical narration in a way that is often very operatic and both singers carefully measured their performance to the immediate task at hand – often requiring the fullest reaches of their vocal range. That versatility is often asked of the choir as well, and the RSNO Chorus was on stellar form, director Stephen Doughty and his singers clearly having the measure of the occasion.

The cross-references, both musical and textual, ear-catching repetitions, and combination of melodious harmonies and challenging unison singing, with swelling crescendos and rumbling darkness are mirrored in the instrumental writing, four sections of which frame the work. MacMillan’s signature percussion and brass are part of the mix, but particular praise should go to orchestra leader Maya Iwabuchi, whose solos included a folk fiddle obligato alongside the Latin antiphon that rounds out the choral work in Part One, and a mirroring role with the lovely Gaelic lullaby that is the last word of the chorus, leading into the instrumental coda.