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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
The Crucifixion (1886/7)

orch. Barry Rose (2001)
Peter Auty (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone)
Rowland Sidwell and Simon Deller (baritones) and David Hadden (bass)
Guildford Camerata
Stephen Farr (organ)
Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Rose
Recorded in Guildford Cathedral, 8, 9, 13 January 2003
LAMMAS LAMM 154D [67’34"]




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Stainer’s Crucifixion is a work at which it is easy to turn up one’s nose from what we like to think is the sophisticated standpoint of the twenty-first century. Having taken part in a number of performances of the work, both as a member of the choir and as a soloist I do not subscribe to that view even though I readily acknowledge that the work has its weaknesses. It is true that the libretto can seem awkward and full of conventional Victorian piety. However, as Barry Rose points out in his informed, understanding note, the librettist expressed himself in the liturgical language of the day. I do wonder, however, if it would have been better if the libretto had been fashioned from the words of scripture. As, for example, Elgar did in Apostles and Kingdom. Perhaps it is not without significance that perhaps the most enduring part of the work, ‘God so loved the world’ sets words directly taken from St. John’s Gospel.

The music is also sometimes patronised these days and it is true that Stainer breaks no new harmonic ground. However, the sincerity of the piece is never in doubt. I think one needs to take the music on the level that it is offered and to acknowledge that its sustained popularity among English choirs must count for something.

It is worth recalling the genesis of the piece. Stainer, who was then in charge of the music at St Paul’s Cathedral, wrote it for the choir of another London church, Marylebone Parish Church. Given that these days many English churches are struggling to maintain any kind of choir, it is salutary to learn from Barry Rose that the Marylebone choir of 1887 consisted of 30 men and no less than 60 boys (altos and trebles.) The choir, which also boasted salaried tenor and bass soloists, rehearsed every day and a contemporary report stated that it was not uncommon for the choir to attend up to 15 practices and services each week! So, this wasn’t, perhaps, a typical parish church choir. However, Stainer’s not inconsiderable achievement was to compose a cantata which would be within the compass of most decent parish church choirs of the day, even if they had to import soloists. The model was, quite clearly, the passions of Bach Stainer had introduced the St. Matthew Passion into Holy Week liturgies at St. Paul’s in 1873, within a year of taking up his appointment as organist there. On a smaller scale, Stainer followed Bach in giving his soloists a mixture of recitative and reflective arias while the chorus commented on the action and also took part in it. Finally, Stainer, like Bach, assigned a role to the congregation through the interpolation of a number of newly composed hymns, which were the equivalent of Bach’s chorales. Stainer opted for organ accompaniment, not least, I’m sure, because he envisaged his work being performed in churches as an adjunct to Lenten liturgies. In this form Crucifixion has been performed by countless church choirs and choral societies every year since 1887.

I must say I was a little perturbed to find that this recording was in a new orchestration by Barry Rose. It concerned me that orchestral dress was bound to change the essential nature of the work and make it into an inflated concert hall work, something which it emphatically is not. In the event I need not have been concerned at all. Yes, the use of an orchestra inevitably imparts a different character to the work. However, Rose has done his work with such skill, sympathy and understanding that the result is never less than convincing. Indeed, while most performances of Crucifixion will remain the preserve of organists (and rightly so), Barry Rose has added a new dimension and I sincerely hope his orchestral version will be taken up and widely performed.

He has not departed radically from the original musical text apart from the addition of a few passing notes and the odd timpani roll. What he has done, however, is to play on the orchestra as a resourceful organist would do by using different stops, to create a palette of different colours in the accompaniment. One particularly good example of this is the fairly lengthy introduction to the chorus ‘Fling wide the gates’ (track 3) where the melody moves from one instrument to another and each time the baton is passed, so to speak, the change is seamless yet introduces a subtly different dimension of colour. He does throw in some tiny brass fanfares during the big tenor aria, ‘King ever glorious’ (track 7) but I don’t find this intrusive and, indeed, his judicious use of the brass in this number adds an extra touch of resplendence. Another particularly ear-catching passage is the bass recitative "There was darkness" (track 16, 0’59") where I find the sepulchral bass rumblings in the accompaniment work much better in orchestral guise than when confined to the pedals of the organ, as is usual.

Although not precisely detailed in the booklet I think the orchestration consists of strings, single (?) woodwind, horns, trumpets, trombones and timpani. The organ still makes an important contribution to the proceedings. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that Barry Rose should have orchestrated the work so well for he must be very familiar with it as an organist and conductor. Indeed, he recorded the work many years ago when he was organist at Guildford Cathedral and that recording, using the cathedral choir, has recently reappeared on the Classics for Pleasure label, though I’m afraid it is yoked in a double CD release with Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary. Now there’s a work of conventional Victoriana, by the side of which Crucifixion appears as a towering masterpiece!

Barry Rose’s orchestral version of Crucifixion was commissioned by the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra and its first performance took place in Guildford Cathedral on 31 March 2001, the centenary of Stainer’s death. This recording, I imagine, uses pretty much the same forces and both composer and orchestrator have been well served by the performers. I believe that the orchestra is at least semi-professional. I spotted a couple of familiar names in the list of personnel. The playing is uniformly excellent. The players are sensitive to dynamics and rubato of which there is quite a bit, not all of it marked in my score but it’s always convincingly done. They never overdo things. The choir too excels. Twenty-nine singers are listed. Once again, I suspect that there is at least a leavening of professionals and by the sound of things the singers are mainly young; they certainly sound young. Their tone is fresh and focused, there is abundant evidence of attention to detail and the singing is bright and committed. The small male solo roles are very well taken by choir members, as Stainer directs. The choir sings the hymns. In performances I think it’s desirable to cut a few of the verses in the longer hymns (ten verses of ‘Cross of Jesus’ on track 5 is rather a lot even though it is a good tune) but, clearly a recording must be complete. Rose varies the accompaniment intelligently and assigns some verses to different sections of the choir so as to provide welcome and necessary variety. I hope the sopranos and altos won’t be offended if I say that I especially enjoyed the verses sung by the men in unison.

It is unfortunate that the work’s Achilles heel lies in the choruses. One of them, ‘God so loved the world’ (track 9) is very fine, deserving of its popularity as a separate anthem. It’s splendidly done here. However, the other two "big" choruses, ‘Fling wide the gates’ (track 3) and, even more so, ‘From the throne of His Cross’ (track 18) are very much the weak links in the piece. Both are terribly repetitious and Stainer stretches thin musical material a very long way. If both had been half as long as they are it would have been much better. Not even the good performances they receive here can convince me that either has much musical merit, I’m afraid.

What of the soloists? I’m not entirely convinced by tenor, Peter Auty. He has a good voice but aspects of his delivery trouble me. I find some of his vowel sounds jar somewhat (for instance track 7, 2’02", at the words "Thou Son of God".) I felt that there was just a trace, but a discernable and (for me) distracting one, of an Italianate, operatic hue to much of his singing. It was only later that I read in his biography that he has done a good deal of opera. I’m afraid I don’t find much sweetness in his tone and, while there must be an heroic ring (especially for ‘King ever glorious’) the type of voice I think I’m looking for in this role is the lighter more "traditionally English" tenor voice, as exemplified by, say John Mark Ainsley. This, of course, is a wholly subjective view and other listeners may well form a different, more positive opinion.

Roderick Williams is another matter. He has a firm, well-focused baritone, which he uses with great intelligence. Coincidentally, I’ve just been listening for pleasure to the new recording of Dyson’s Quo Vadis to which he makes a telling and fine contribution. He uses vocal colour imaginatively but by no means excessively. Indeed, he seems to have realised that the best way to sing the solo roles in this work is in a straightforward way with sincerity and directness, resisting the temptation to try to "do" too much with the music. His is a dignified and thoroughly musical performance which I appreciated very much.

I’ve said a lot about Barry Rose as orchestrator but little about his conducting. I mean it as a compliment when I say that one scarcely notices the conducting. He is clearly the master of the score and he keeps things on a tight rein, injecting pace and vigour where necessary but also not afraid to use rubato to underscore key points. His is a fluent and idiomatic reading of the piece. His direction, allied to the addition of orchestral colouring, relates the work more closely than I had previously realised to Elgar’s early cantatas (though those contain better music.)

The recorded sound is first rate, being clear and well balanced. Presentation is good. The full text is provided and, as I said earlier, Barry Rose contributes an excellent, readable essay about the work itself and the background to his orchestration. Hearing Stainer’s piece now in an orchestral version makes me wonder why the task has not been undertaken before. However, now that it has been done I can report that it is hard to think that it could have been done more successfully or with greater sympathy and sensitivity. Barry Rose deserves congratulations on a fine achievement and it is to be hoped that more performances will follow.

This is a very good CD which I warmly commend to all lovers of the English choral tradition.

John Quinn



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