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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
The Crucifixion
Come, thou long-expected Jesus
I saw the Lord
Love Divine all loves excelling *

Richard Lewis, tenor
Owen Brannigan, bass
Brian Runnett, organ
The Choir of St Johnís College Cambridge
The Choir of Kingís College Cambridge *
George Guest
Stephen Cleobury *
Recorded St Johnís College Chapel, Cambridge December 1961 (The Crucifixion); August 1963 (Come Thou long-expected Jesus); Kingís College Chapel 1958 (I saw the Lord); March 1985 (Love Divine all loves excelling)
DECCA 470 379-2 [74.21]


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The Crucifixion is well over a century old now Ė first performed at St Marylebone Parish Church in 1887 Ė and shows no sign of relaxing its hold on the catalogue. Predominately this is because Stainerís greatest gift is to have written a relatively easy-to-perform work for limited forces and ones moreover specifically related to a parish choir. Its emotional circumspection and lyrico-dramatic limitations (in a conventional sense) are wholly in keeping with this ethos. Its linear progress is unhurried and unvisited by directly expressive intrusions though Fling wide the gates has long been valued as a rousing and welcomingly evocative moment. Elsewhere the faux conversationality of the recitative He made Himself of no reputation will strike many as forlornly ineffectual and the jaunty choral hymn For the love of Jesus following Christís death on the Cross as a woefully inadequate response.

But this is, I suppose, to ascribe to the work the kind of qualities and depths to which it does not, of itself, aspire. It does possess a musical integrity of its own, a very Victorian sense of fulfilment and the audience or congregational hymns do indeed embrace a degree of intimacy and involvement hard to gainsay. All of which perhaps sounds equivocal about the work and it must be said that the level of musical insight is not uniform, that the melodic contours can seem prosaic, that the sensibility of the whole piece emerges as rather too comfortable and confined. Still in a performance of conviction such problems can at least be minimised and mitigated. And if you canít listen to Richard Crooks and Lawrence Tibbett in it (and actually you can or could until recently on Claremont) then Richard Lewis and Owen Brannigan from 1961 are the next best thing Ė maybe even the better thing. Lewisís deeply sensitive tenor elucidates the text as few ever could, with his characteristic elegance and beauty of tone Ė not, itís true, with the plangency of his predecessor, the greatest of all British lyric tenors, Heddle Nash, one of whose BBC broadcasts of The Crucifixion has survived Ė but with real engagement. Redoubtable Owen Brannigan is moving and commanding, flexible of voice, sonorous but not over inflated. The Choral Hymns are taken by the Choir of St Johnís conducted by George Guest. The directness and uncomplicated simplicity are worthily apposite to the work which, at over an hourís length, still requires intelligence of pacing and an undragging approach. The sound quality was always good and it emerges so still. Short of hearing Nash, with his son, John Heddle, this Decca disc is The Crucifixion that, it seems to me, most appropriately and honestly gets to grips with its complaisant aesthetic. If that sounds backhanded it is still intended to convey that the work still has the power to move.

Three hymns complete the disc, dating variously from 1958, 1963 and 1985 - inappropriately heterogeneous chronologically, perhaps, but appositely prayerful. For all its faults, for all its frustrating limitations, for all its tonal and musical inadequacies there is nevertheless something touching in its assured reverence that will ensure that The Crucifixion keeps its place in the repertory and its secure place on disc.
Jonathan Woolf

 


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