Seven Last Words from the Cross

St John's Cathedral (Canticum)


By James McMillan


How privileged we are to have a chamber music choir like Canticum in Brisbane. Founded by Emily Cox 11 years ago, it has always been an important part of Australia’s music community, not just giving performances of the great Baroque classic like Bach’s St John Passion, but introducing audiences to modern composers, as well as more obscure composers from the past, to enrich our musical imagination.

Last year Canticum was selected as a special guest choir at the 7th World Symposium of Choral Music in Kyoto, and last week we heard the first of their four major performances, in the form of their traditional Good Friday concert in St John’s cathedral.

I don’t pretend to be a music critic, so this isn’t so much a review as a sharing of the experience of last Friday. Liturgically the evening of Good Friday is a time for quiet reflection after the traumatic Passion services, a time for believers and unbelievers alike to wind down, to be sombre, to think about serious things and seek spiritual nourishment in a passive way. Cox has always caught this mood perfectly in her Good Friday concerts, and this year’s was no exception.

It began simply enough, with a traditional motet by the 16th century Spanish composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, a setting of words from the Good Friday liturgy of the Adoration of the Cross, Vere languores nostros (“surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”). This was sung from behind the cathedral’s high altar, and the pure notes and complex harmonies poured down into the nave with a subtly theatrical effect, prickling the back of my neck in the darkling light.

And then came the highlight of the evening, a startling different modern piece by contemporary Scottish composer James MacMillan (born 1959), based on the traditional Seven Last Words of Christ from the cross, which astonished and overwhelmed the dumbfounded audience, as we listened to strange harmonies and our ears were simultaneously shocked and stimulated by the juxtapositions of mood, tone and volume.

This is where I wish I had the technical vocabulary to convey what was going on. From the quiet beginning of the “Father, forgive them”, the singers and musicians built to a chilling lament; the “Woman, behold thy son” sequence was a frenzied evolution from near-hysteria to exhaustion; and the third movement, “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise”, took the liturgical versicle Ecce Lignum Crucis , where the cross is thrice displayed to the people, and sang it three times rising from the basses through the tenors to the altos, finishing with a fiendishly difficult repetition by the high sopranos, which just teetered on the edge of a screech. It was impossible to believe that the human voice could reach so high without becoming ugly imagine the Queen of the Night’s aria in sorrowful mode and you almost have it and the highest praise must go to soprano soloists Lyn Moorfoot and Tricia Bartkowiak for pulling it off.

And so it went on from lament to desolate harmonics to distant whispering, to the hammer-blows of reproach and resigned anguish, finishing with a long instrumental lament with Scottish overtones, leaving the audience emotionally exhausted but deeply fulfilled at the same time. It was, quite simply, one of the most emotional musical experiences I’ve ever had.

You’ve missed it, of course, but put it in your diary for next year. And don’t forget Canticum’s other concerts this year, in June, November and December.

Directed by Emily Cox

Played Friday 14 April 2006

Duration : 1 hour

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 13th April 2006)