Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
Mark Wilde (tenor), Graham Trew (baritone)
Thomas Allery (organ)
Choir of St. Marylebone Parish Church, London/Gavin Roberts
rec. live, St. Marylebone Parish Church, 25 March 2016
HERALD HAVPCD399 [70.14]
It has become fashionable in the last forty years to denigrate Stainer’s Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer (and the other oft-performed oratorio Oliver to Calvary by Maunder). Indeed, rather like Victorian, architecture it is considered almost lacking in taste and overly mannered. But it must be pointed out that Stainer deliberately wrote the piece for an amateur church choir of good quality—and the choir in particular he wrote it for was that of St. Marylebone Parish Church.
The text was written and selected by the Reverend John Sparrow-Simpson. He was vicar of St. Vedast Foster Lane in London’s square mile, a church that still has a fine choral tradition. Up to that point Stainer, now into middle age, had produced settings of the Evening Canticles including the one in E flat, which clings on to the repertoire, and some fine anthems like Hail Gladdening Light. To encounter any piece other than The Crucifixion is very rare, but many amateur choirs still perform it all over the country, mostly during Holy Week, just as Stainer had intended.
And what makes this CD so interesting is that the choir of St. Marylebone Church continue the tradition of performing the work each year to a large congregation. It is their 2016 rendition which has been evocatively captured here by Herald. I was conducting the piece once and announced to my large choir that ours was to be an “authentic performance”. In retrospect, that was a daft comment because if any performance of the work is authentic then this recording has to be it.
There is no doubt that your feelings for Stainer’s work will be dictated by how you first came across it. For me it was as a boy chorister, each year singing in it and indeed doing the solo treble in God so loved the world with the local parish choir. I was quite carried away by the great chorus From the Throne of his cross with the shouts of “Crucify” set to dramatic diminished chords; also by the low, chromatic pedal line, which precedes “There was darkness over all the earth”. I wrote an essay about the piece later as a student. My bemused professor could only agree that Stainer’s hymns were indeed fine melodies but that the rest of the piece should be “confined to the pyre”.
The famous recording on LP from the 1960s was that by St. John’s College Cambridge under George Guest on Argo, with the rather elderly Owen Brannigan and Richard Lewis. That has been the recording which seemed to me to be a benchmark. Of course, boys sang the top part throughout.
Stainer divided the cantata (?) into twenty sections. Here, each is given its own track. There is a narrator sung by a baritone—sometimes called a bass—and Jesus who is a tenor, but the so-called “Last words” in the later sections are allotted to the men’s voices, often in four parts. Various miscellaneous parts, like the thieves crucified alongside Jesus, are instructed to be voices “from the choir”. There are also duets and solos for the main soloists, acting outside their “characters” like So thou liftest thy divine petition, a movement which ends in what an organist friend describes as “a Nellie-Dee Cadence”—very sentimental.
In this recording, the sturdy congregation and the choir sing the hymns. They include that wonderful tune for “All for Jesus” which ends the piece.
The booklet is a thin affair with a brief few paragraphs acting as an introduction, by the Revd. Canon Stephen Evans, Rector of St. Marylebone church as well as a suitable prayer. Then there are biographies of the four solo performers listed at the head of this review. Obviously, no texts are supplied.
Although I have reservations about this performance, it does act as a record of a generally good quality and typical performance of this work—the sort of thing Stainer would have expected and intended. I do regret however that God so loved is allotted to the entire choir and not to soloists. It is good to hear Graham Trew again on CD. Gavin Roberts’s tempi are entirely in keeping with the “norm”, and the choir are suitably fervent and clearly enthusiastic.