The heyday of big musical settings of the Passion story was the 18th century, but the form has seen a revival in recent decades, with interpretations by Arvo Pärt, James MacMillan and Bob Chilcott among others. Arguably, the instigator of this revival was Krzysztof Penderecki’s shock-and-awe 1966 work, The St Luke Passion. Set in Latin, and alternating St Luke’s text with sections from other sources, such as The Lamentations of Jeremiah and the Good Friday Reproaches, as well as incorporating his own 1962 Stabat Mater, the work is scored for massive forces – a full orchestra with augmented percussion section, a large chorus and a separate boys’ chorus, as well as organ, narrator and three soloists.
For the piece to have its full shattering effect, it is probably best performed in a more generous acoustic, and that of the Royal Festival Hall is possibly overly dry (and the organ, still not restored to its full glory, was perhaps a little underpowered in places), but nonetheless, Saturday night’s performance of the work by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski was a tour de force – from the stark iterations of the word ‘crux’ for chorus and organ at the opening, to the unexpected-yet-radiant E-major chord at the close of the work (one of the only two major chords in the otherwise generally atonal piece).
It is a challenging work for all involved, but particularly the chorus; this is 20th-century discarding-the-old-rule-book in full flow, with Penderecki’s enfant-terrible writing requiring the chorus to babble, whoop, glissando, and shout (as well as sing harmonically demanding material). The Polish Radio Choir and the boys’ choir took all of this in their stride, and produced some magnificently filmic effects: the angry muttering for Judas’ betrayal, and the alternating evil whispering and terrifying screaming as Christ is condemned, were visceral; also outstanding was their unaccompanied movement ‘in pulverem mortis’, in which the tuning forks were flashing to ensure exact pitching.
Note clusters abound in the piece, but these are not the ethereal vaguely-spiritual overused trope of contemporary composers but full-on organ-and-brass accumulations designed to portray horror and grief – emotions that the LPO conveyed with petrifying conviction in, for example, ‘Jerusalem’. Penderecki’s hallmark descending violin cluster-chords (used to great effect in Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima) were also present in ‘Popule meus’, and again, the orchestra managed to raise hairs on the backs of necks.
The work is not always loud and harrowing; there are more intimate moments – the charming, almost jazz double-bass underscore of gently whirling flutes in ‘Domine quis habitat’ offers surcease, and the soprano Elizabeth Atherton gave us some beautifully wandering lines over this accompaniment; equally enchanting was how the tone of her voice matched the alto flute perfectly in ‘Crux fidelis’. Tomasz Konieczny’s deliciously rich bass voice was also an excellent match for the bass clarinet in ‘Judica me’, and Omar Ebrahim’s sonorous speaking tone was exactly right for the recited passages. The Christus part is challenging, requiring a wide vocal range, and Dietrich Henschel gave a competent account, but his voice somehow lacked the innate drama of the other soloists’ voices, and some of the falsetto passages were less than perfectly executed.
It could be argued that the piece is a little dated these days, but the rare chance to hear such a first-rate performance of it was a reminder of the confrontational world of 20th-century Modernism, and how such rule-breaking informed the work of today’s composers.