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Coherent complexity

Gabriel Jackson (Joel Garthwaite)

Coherent complexity

Passion oratorio assumes and rewards an intelligent and patient audience 

Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is not by any means an “easy” work. Irregular rhythms jostle with mercurial dynamics. Orchestral instruments respond to the calls of operatic soloists who soar and dip amid or atop choral vocals. Sounds begin in mimesis and end in abstraction. Form yields to content, adapts, then yields again, creating phantasmagoric effects.

Yet for all of its eclecticism and complexity, the 69-minute oratorio coheres. Its new, world-premier recording on Delphian Records by (in order of billing) the soprano Emma Tring, the tenor Guy Cutting, the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, and Benjamin Nicholas’ Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia provides an illuminating and a challenging meditation on seven pivotal events associated with Holy Week and Easter.

How challenging is it? Well, the gulf between The Passion and the typical contemporary “praise and worship” album may not be as great or as fixed as the one separating Lazarus from Dives, but Jackson’s pigeonhole-resistant music still requires powers of concentration seldom demanded by projects that—their good intentions notwithstanding—underestimate the intelligence and the patience of their audience. Jackson takes the intelligence and the patience of his audience as a given.

Consider, for instance, the lengths of the piece’s seven movements. The shortest (“Last Supper and Footwashing”) unfolds for eight minutes and 54 seconds, the longest (“Crucifixion”) for 10:49. And because of the scarcity of refrains (either instrumental or vocal) and other mnemonic earmarks of music intended to “meet people where they are,” the pieces feel even longer. “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” Jesus asked Peter, James, and John. Anyone unprepared for the demands on their attention spans made by Jackson’s Passion will gain new insights into how that notoriously sleepy trio felt.

It is perhaps with such listeners in mind that Delphian Records has included in the CD booklet not only the printed lyrics of each selection but the English translations of the occasional Latin texts as well. Or maybe the providing of such aid is a tacit admission that lyrics sung mainly as recitatives by a 33-voice choir accompanied by 10 orchestral instrumentalists (or simultaneously by Emma Tring and the choir, in Latin and English, during “Last Supper and Footwashing”) don’t always come across intelligibly after just two or three listens.

The familiarity of the numerous King James Version New Testament passages that unite the narrative helps bridge the intelligibility gap. But some of the other texts are relatively obscure. Edward Reynolds’ “General Thanksgiving” from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is interpolated into sections of Luke 7 (“Anointing at Bethany”), Thomas Carew’s “Psalm 137” into sections of Mark 14 and 15 (“Caiaphas, Peter and Pilate”), and Edmund Blunden’s World War I poetry into sections of Matthew 26 (“Gethsemane”). And the final fifth of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” comprises the whole of the concluding movement, “The End and the Beginning.”

But even this authorial diversity plays into the work’s inner unity: Edwards, Carew, Blunden, and Eliot each spent quality time at Oxford’s Merton College, the 750th anniversary of which inspired the commission of The Passion and the chapel of which provided the setting of this recording. Why, as the liner notes point out, even parts of the KJV were translated at Merton!

What happens after the first several listens is that the method behind what may have at first seemed like madness begins to emerge. And as the source material’s dramatic and emotional richness accumulates, it takes shapes that in their suggestive semi-recognizability foreshadow nothing so much as the appearances of the post-resurrection Christ.