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Stations of the Cross
Improvisations on Themes of Ned Rorem
McNeil Robinson (organ)
rec. live, 21 March, 2006, Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City DELOS DE3549 [73:03]
The Lenten season of 2020 is a most appropriate time for release this disc evoking the 14 Stations of the Cross and also commemorating the fifth anniversary of the death of the great American organist McNeil Robinson. Robinson was well known both as a composer of church and organ music and as a pillar of the New York organ world, serving as organist at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the Park Avenue Synagogue, the Park Avenue Christian Church, and the Church of the Holy Trinity (review).
Robinson was known as one of the fine improvisors in America. He would create whole programs based on themes submitted by well-known composers. These ran the gamut from Marcel Dupré to Charles Wuorinen. On this disc we have Robinson improvising on 14 themes created by the now-96-year-old Ned Rorem, who Robinson considered a major influence on his own compositions. He returned the favor by creating what is basically a gigantic, cyclical, 14-movement symphonic poem on Rorem’s themes, showcasing his compositional skill as well as his improvisational ability.
I do not propose to go through all 14 Stations of the Cross but will limit myself to pointing out a few “highlights”. After the almost-Straussian agonies of the first station (Jesus is condemned to death) there is a total contrast with Jesus takes up his cross-not the agonized struggle one might expect but a calm journey full of hope. Throughout the 14 improvisations Robinson keeps things moving by the use of contrasts of tempi and by the use of unifying motifs. Another moment of repose is provided by the fourth station, Jesus meets hisafflicted mother-this is touching but not sentimental. It is in the seventh station (Jesus falls the second time) that Robinson’s compositional abilities come to the fore as he combines elements of the first and third stations before Jesus finally falls. The ninth station (Jesus falls the third time) is another “slow movement”, but this time full of disappointment. From this point on Robinson adds a further structural component by using the “Pange Lingua” chant, varied subtly, in all but the last station. In Jesus is laid in the tomb, everything dies away in peace but at the end Robinson interpolates the Eucharistic hymn “Adoro te devote” to foreshadow the Resurrection.
This a live recording but has few of the drawbacks one associates with live performances-overall the sound is excellent. The organ is that of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City, where Robinson served for a number of years-he knew every facet of the instrument and it shows in his improvisations. Robinson considered this recording to be one of his finest performances and had hoped it would someday be released on disc. Thanks to his student, and successor at Church of the Holy Trinity, Andrew Yeargin, it is finally available on disc and should delight all devotees of organ music.
1) Jesus is condemned to death (6:00)
2) Jesus takes up his Cross (5:44)
3) Jesus falls the first time (4:11)
4) Jesus meets his afflicted mother (4:23)
5) The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene (5:18)
6) Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (4:25)
7) Jesus falls the second time (4:37)
8) Jesus meets the Women of Jerusalem (5:21)
9) Jesus falls the third time (4:40)
10) Jesus is stripped of his garments (4:22)
11) Jesus is nailed to the Cross (4:44)
12) Jesus dies on the Cross (7:31)
13) Jesus’ body is placed in the arms of his mother (4:43)
14) Jesus is laid in the tomb (7:03)