First performed in December 2000, John Adams’s nativity oratorio El Niño is a work that straddled the millennium. In many respects it looks backwards to an era when composers habitually wrote narrative religious works, most gloriously exemplified by Bach’s passions and Handel’s oratorios, but at the same time Adams’s eclectic score sounds and feels completely modern.
Here was a happy choice for the final weekend of Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise festival. Having progressed chronologically through the history of 20th-century music, this year-long series of concerts needed to end with a major work written as the century came to a close. A seasonal oratorio, as Christmas approaches, made an ideal fit.
Is El Niño an opera or an oratorio? When parts of it feel so close to Handel’s Messiah, the question may seem superfluous. But Adams’s output is tough to categorise: his operas tend to favour a collage of oratorio-like commentary over storytelling, while this oratorio was originally staged in its early performances. Static, admittedly, but with coruscating colours and powerful gestures, the staged El Niño came across as a work of deep, elemental emotions at its first UK showing.
This exemplary concert performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, felt very different. Adams’s chugging, minimalist rhythms were perfectly sprung; and everywhere the sound-world was of brilliant clarity, sparkling with the glitter of tuned percussion, and rising at its climaxes to textures that were positively rapturous. Where the original cast had drawn emotions from the earth, here we had the radiance of light and air.
A big part of the work’s early impact rested with the gloriously rich singing of the original mezzo soloist, the greatly missed Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, though that is not to denigrate the very effective Kelley O’Connor, her smaller-scale successor here. Matthew Rose, the bass, was now the dominating soloist, though Rosemary Joshua also shone in the soprano’s solos. The three countertenors – Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Steven Rickards – were well matched. The London Philharmonic Choir sounded eminently well rehearsed and the final minutes were wonderfully illuminated by the youthful voices of the Coloma St Cecilia Singers and Trinity Boys Choir.