Charles Wood’s St. Mark Passion might be said to spring
from the same well as such pieces as Stainer’s Crucifixion
(1887) or Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary (1904). These
works, of which Stainer’s is by a long way the best, were produced
to give Victorian parish choirs of a reasonable standard music
with which they could mark Holy Week. Commonly such pieces would
incorporate hymns as a way of involving the congregations in much
the same way that the chorales function in Bach’s Passion settings.
Wood’s work, which
was composed in 1920, was written at the behest of Eric Milner-White
(1884-1963), a remarkable Anglican cleric who, at that time,
was Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, a post that he held from
the end of Word War I until 1941, when he became Dean of York
Minster. Milner-White had a strong interest in the role of music
in the liturgy – it was he who instituted the Festival of Nine
Lessons and Carols at King’s – and, as Daniel Hyde points out
in his useful booklet note, he decided to invite Wood to compose
this Passion setting because he felt that parochial choirs needed
at least to have an alternative to Stainer et al. Wood’s
setting of the Passion was first sung in King’s College Chapel,
by the college choir under A H Mann, on Good Friday 1921. Wood
was an obvious person to turn to for this assignment as he had
impeccable credentials in the field of church music at the time
and he was a Cambridge man through and through; he occupied
various posts in the University from 1888 onwards, finally succeeding
his old teacher, Stanford, as Professor of Music in 1924.
The structure of the work is straightforward.
St. Mark’s narrative is divided into five sections or Gospels
during which the story is told sometimes by the choir and sometimes
by the tenor Evangelist. The first Gospel deals with the Last
Supper; Gospel II with Gethsemane; Peter’s denial is related
in Gospel III; while Gospel IV tells of Christ’s appearance
before Pilate and Gospel V describes the crucifixion itself.
In between these
Gospels, and at the very beginning and end, the choir sing appropriate
hymns. I didn’t have access to a score so I don’t know if Daniel
Hyde has cut out some verses from the hymns but in this performance
the most that we hear in any hymn is four verses. This brevity
on the part of Wood or Hyde is welcome for in Stainer’s Crucifixion,
for example, some of the hymns do tend to outstay their welcome.
Wood’s setting differs
from the aforementioned works by Maunder and Stainer in that
he does not include any solo arias; apart from the hymns all
that we get is narrative. Also he doesn’t give the choir any
oratorio-style choruses. I welcome this because in Crucifixion
the choruses are, frankly, the weakest sections of the work
by some distance while Olivet to Calvary is even worse
in this respect – and is a much inferior piece to the Stainer,
in any event.
So in some respects
Wood’s work could be regarded as somewhat austere; there is
nothing showy about the writing though the organ part is sometimes
appropriately descriptive. However, Wood is not dull or foursquare
in his choral writing and the work has a freshness and, above
all, a sincerity that I found impressive. It helps, I’m sure,
that the performance is a good one. Simon Wall has a light,
clear and flexible voice, which he uses intelligently and effectively.
His narration is involving yet has just the right degree of
restraint. James Birchall is just as good in the role of Christ,
singing with appropriate dignity. Edward Grint has much less
to do but he sings his brief solos satisfactorily.
The choir is excellent.
They sing with an appealing youthful freshness yet there’s body
in the tone as well. The voices are well blended and tuning
and diction are very good. When Wood requires them to be vigorous
or dramatic they respond very well but it’s their quieter singing
that impresses particularly. Thus, the Fifth Gospel, which is
unaccompanied throughout, is very sensitively sung. I’d also
single out for special praise the way they sing the hymn, ‘My
God I love Thee’ after the Third Gospel. The singing here is
dedicated and the final verse is distinguished by radiantly
pure solo soprano descant, which Ruth Jenkins delivers quite
beautifully. Daniel Hyde has clearly trained his young choir
splendidly and he and they perform Wood’s piece with conviction.
organ playing is absolutely first class and, having provided
sensitive and very supportive accompaniment for the singers
he rounds off the disc with a fine performance of Bairstow’s
Toccata – Prelude. This is an ideal choice, not
least because it ends quietly, which I think is most appropriate
given what has gone before.
I wouldn’t claim
that Wood’s St. Mark Passion is a neglected masterpiece.
However, it’s a very well-crafted, sincere piece and it’s far
from lacking in interest. It’s a good alternative to Crucifixion
and comparable pieces and I’d welcome a chance to sing in
it myself. I hope that this excellent performance, captured
in very good sound, will win it wider attention for it deserves
to be better known.
see also Review
by Michael Cookson