Under the composer’s fluent and encouraging direction, Simon Halsey’s chorus sang with all its legendary attack, projection and clarity of diction, well-balanced and controlled, taut with urgency, and partnered by a CBSO which did full justice to the resourceful imaginativeness of MacMillan’s modest scoring.
The 73-minute work (what a convenient length for a CD!) is sure in its dramatic pacing, and the restless stirrings in the orchestral bass line as Christ ascends into heaven are particularly effective, underpinning the ancient chant melody which the Chorus intones.
Other passages are less convincing, such as Puccinian moments during the Last Supper.
For all the skill of its construction, though, the piece fails to engage.
The whole narrative is carried out by the choir (there are no soloists), and the undifferentiated vocal timbre becomes dangerously bland.
Christ’s words are sung by the remarkable CBSO Youth Chorus (brilliantly prepared by Julian Wilkins – also a dab hand with the organ part), but innocent purity from these undeveloped voices comes with the price of some indistinct delivery.
Generously, MacMillan preceded this important premiere with an account of Britten’s haunting Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings in which sensitivity to atmosphere was paramount.
Toby Spence sang subtly, if sometimes underpowered, and successfully banished the suffocating resonances of Peter Pears, and Richard Watkins’ horn obbligato was simply stunning, well-coloured, and confidently performed from memory.