Like Holst in The Hymn of Jesus
, Birtwistle turns for his subject matter to a gospel episode connected with the Last Supper but described only in the apocryphal Acts of John, a collection of texts suppressed by the Church for carrying traces of the docetic belief that Christ’s human form was illusory (‘We wanted to see the print of his foot’, as Harsent puts it: ‘if it showed on the ground …’). The central role of dance in this episode was presumably also problematic for the Church as it became more equivocal about the role of dance in worship (although dance seems to have featured in paraliturgical practice well into medieval times). But the mystical association between a circular dance and themes of eternity and resurrection is clear enough, and Harsent’s text frames them for Birtwistle within a characteristically ritualised structure of call and response, verbal echoes, and longer, aria-like statements. ‘The Nazarene’, of course, is Christ, who is sometimes represented by a baritone soloist, although at other times his words are taken over by the choir, which thus conveys at different times the words of Jesus and of the disciples, as well as fulfilling a more conventionally choric role. The overall manner of the setting, with individual wind instruments occasionally emerging from the accompanying sextet in obbligato fashion, suggests a Baroque inspiration, while an intriguing additional contribution is the sound of an Iranian drum (perhaps itself a symbol for Christ as dancer?) which is present throughout much of the work as a kind of percussion continuo.
from notes by John Fallas © 2014