Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
The Crucifixion (1887)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Neal Davies (bass); Darius Battiwalla (organ)
Huddersfield Choral Society/Joseph Cullen
rec. 13-15 June 2009, Huddersfield Town Hall. DDD
English text included

Sir John Stainer’s compositions have rather fallen out of fashion nowadays though The Crucifixion retains a place in the English choral repertoire and some of his church music is still sung by cathedral and parish church choirs. However, as the good booklet essay that accompanies this CD reminds us, he was a very significant and influential figure in Victorian musical circles. I was aware of some of his accomplishments but I’d not realised that he was sufficiently talented to secure an appointment as the organist of a London parish church at the age of just fourteen. A series of further appointments followed until in 1872 he reached what was then the pinnacle of his profession, securing the post of organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Obliged by failing eyesight to relinquish that post in 1888 after a very successful tenure, he then became Professor of Music at Oxford University in 1889, occupying that position until 1899.

The Crucifixion. A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer, to give the work its full title, was composed in 1886-7 at the prompting of a friend who was organist of St. Marylebone Parish Church in London. The Crucifixion was first sung in that church on Good Friday 1887 and I understand it is still performed there on Good Friday every year. It’s worth bearing in mind the full title of the piece and the circumstances in which it was composed for Stainer never intended The Crucifixion to be a concert work. Rather it was designed for liturgical use to aid congregational recollection of the Passion and Death of Christ. As such it fulfils a similar function to the Passion settings of Bach. In particular, the interpolation of several hymns, intended for congregational participation, fulfils a similar function to the chorales used by Bach. To listeners today the work may sound a little old-fashioned - not least the very Victorian words - but we should pay Stainer the compliment of taking the work on its own terms; if we do it’s actually a rather successful achievement.

Stainer deliberately designed the chorus parts to be within the compass of a decent parish church choir. The Huddersfield Choral Society is much more than that. It is, perhaps, a rather larger body than one might expect to hear singing the work but the choir never sounds unwieldy. On the contrary, they sing very well indeed and their rendition of ‘God so loved the world’ is exceptionally fine. They do the two other set-piece choruses well too. However, as a matter of personal taste I find that these passages - the Processional to Calvary, ‘Fling wide the gates’, and The Appeal of the Crucified - are much the weakest in the whole work. Both have seemed absolutely interminable to me whenever I’ve sung or heard them, with Stainer making thin musical material - and poor words - go a very long way indeed. Even the excellent singing on offer here fails to persuade me to change my mind.

The hymns fulfil an important function, as I’ve said. They’re prime examples of Victorian hymnody, which may be an obstacle for some, but Joseph Cullen very sensibly ensures that the music keeps moving forward and he varies the textures, for example by giving one verse to unison male voices and another to the ladies of the chorus.

The two main soloists have important roles. Andrew Kennedy sings the tenor solos very well and in particular he discharges the big aria, ‘King ever glorious’ with fine feeling, building it to a ringing conclusion. Kennedy presents his solos with taste and conviction and is careful not to step over the line into sentimentality. About the contribution of Neal Davies I’m not quite so sure. He has a fine, sonorous voice and good vocal presence. However, to my ears he sometimes strives too much for expressive effect and, as a result, sounds slightly portentous. His singing of the short passage beginning ‘And one of the malefactors’ offer such an example and another occurs with his very first entry - ‘Couldst ye not watch with me’. I prefer a more straightforward, less overtly expressive approach and therefore find Kennedy the more convincing soloist.

The score includes a few small male voice solos, which are to be taken from the chorus. The chosen singers are recognisably amateurs - as Stainer would have expected - but they deliver these passages adequately.

Joseph Cullen has clearly prepared his choir very well indeed and he directs the whole performance very well. His tempi are well chosen and he conveys the sentiments of The Crucifixion convincingly while avoiding and suspicion of sentimentality.

I remember from my schooldays in Huddersfield that the organ in the Town Hall was an imposing instrument and it’s good to be reminded after all these years what a fine sound it can produce. Under the expert hands - and feet - of Darius Battiwalla the organ makes a telling contribution to the performance. He uses appropriate and imaginative registrations for the quiet passages while the full organ is deployed to telling effect elsewhere. I was particularly impressed by the thrilling pedal sounds at times in ‘Fling wide the gates’ and at very end of ‘King ever Glorious’. Happily, the organ and the singers are presented in an excellent and clear sound.

One or two slight reservations apart - and others may not share them - this is a fine and convincing account of Stainer’s sincere and durable Passion piece.

John Quinn