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