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Sir John STAINER (1840-1901)
The Crucifixion - A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer (1887)
James Gilchrist (tenor); Simon Bailey (bass);
Stephen Farr (organ).
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge/Timothy Brown
Recorded in Guildford Cathedral, Surrey, UK, 21-22 June 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557624 [66:47]


Stainer’s Crucifixion is a work which nowadays, as a rather naïve example of Victorian religiosity, is held in fairly low esteem in certain quarters. In the last few years I’ve taken part in several performances, sometimes as a member of the chorus, sometimes as a soloist. A reasonable acquaintance with the piece has convinced me that while it has its weaknesses it is still a good and sincere work. Moreover, it fills a particular function in that it can be sung by a church choir of a reasonable standard, provided they have two decent soloists and a good organist. Thus it can still serve Stainer’s original conception as a religious celebration for the average parish community.

Here it is sung by a choir of far better than reasonable standard, directed by an imaginative conductor, and the soloists and the organist are very good indeed. Incidentally, this is very much a Clare College effort since both Simon Bailey and Stephen Farr are alumni of the college. Only James Gilchrist, an Oxford man, is not connected with Clare. And if it was desirable to record the work in a venue other than the chapel of Clare College then what a good idea to use Guildford Cathedral, where Stephen Farr is the organist since, of course, he will have an intimate knowledge of the organ and, presumably, will have been able to advise as necessary on the acoustics.

I might as well deal first with what for me is the major weakness of Crucifixion. There are three significant choruses in the piece and two of them are, frankly, pretty dreadful. Unfortunately, they’re also the longest movements in the work. Indeed, that’s a big part of the trouble. As music both ‘Procession to Calvary’ (track 3) and ‘The Appeal of the Crucified’ (track 18) strike me as pretty uninspired but this is magnified greatly by Stainer’s repetitiousness. "Fling wide the gates" sing the choir in the first of these. Unfortunately, they fling open gate after gate as the same material is stretched way beyond its limits. At least, however, that chorus is fairly lively, and the choir sing it here with some purpose. However its companion is just plain dull, even more repetitive and it’s also rather maudlin into the bargain. Both outstay their welcome significantly, even when in the very capable hands of Timothy Brown and his singers.

Happily, the third chorus, the well known ‘God so loved the world’ is a completely different matter. This is sincere and thoughtful music and it’s a genuinely memorable, not to say moving, setting. Not for nothing has it become a frequently performed anthem in its own right. Brown’s choir sing it sensitively and beautifully. They also engage our interest in the several hymns, which occur at various points in the work, performing a function similar to that of the chorales in Bach’s Passions. Some of these are rather good tunes even if the words can be a bit outdated. Timothy Brown makes a number of sensible editorial decisions about the hymns, some of which can otherwise be rather long. The first of them, ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow’ (track 5) consists of ten verses. Brown omits three of these (verses 6 – 8) and he also breaks up the verses by allotting some to male voices only (singing the tune in unison) and some to the higher voices. He also has one verse sung unaccompanied. This all provides necessary contrast and he follows these principles in the other hymns, all of which are sung in full. I must mention one lovely touch in the hymn ‘Jesus the Crucified’ (track 13). Here, in the last of the four verses the sopranos sing the tune while the three lower voices hum their parts. It’s a most touching effect.

The soloists both have major contributions to make, the tenor in particular. Both James Gilchrist and Simon Bailey sing very well. Gilchrist’s opening phrases in the very first number are sweetly voiced. He’s appropriately warm and romantic in the solo interlude that breaks up the ‘Fling wide’ chorus and he gives a quite splendid account of the tenor’s Big Number, ‘King ever glorious’ (track 7). He commands attention in that demanding solo, whether with heroic, ringing tone or in the more sensitive and reflective passages. Here. as throughout the work, his diction is crystal clear and every note that he sings is hit squarely in the middle. My one very slight criticism is that there are a few occasions, most of them in this particular aria, where he rolls his letter "r"s a shade too long.

Simon Bailey sings with a rich, full tone and his contributions have dignity. Some listeners may feel that he sings with a bit too much vibrato though I can’t say that I found this to be overdone. Like Gilchrist, his diction is admirably clear. The bass soloist doesn’t have a big aria of his own but both soloists combine in the duet, ‘So thou liftest Thy divine petition’ (track 12). This is the one part of the performance with which I have an issue. In the vocal score the tempo is marked as crochet = 70 and Timothy Brown is virtually spot-on. Whilst this is undoubtedly correct I personally prefer a slightly quicker speed. Partly this is because the music sounds too slow at that basic tempo. More seriously, however, Stainer marks several easings of this already slow tempo, all of which are fully observed here. The result, while entirely faithful to the score, sounds a bit laboured and sentimental to me despite the undoubted artistry of the musicians.

But that’s really the only quibble I have with this performance and it’s one that other listeners may not share. For the rest the performers do Stainer proud. Stephen Farr plays the organ part splendidly and the choral singing is alert, responsive and a pleasure to hear. The acoustic of Guildford Cathedral is a resonant one but I find the sound quality to be perfectly satisfactory. Naxos provides full documentation, including a good note and the full text.

This is one of the releases with which the 18th anniversary of the Naxos label is being marked. My copy was accompanied by a second CD of seventeen tracks (62’22" in total), which are extracts from a number of Naxos’s very fine recordings of English church music. However, I believe this bonus CD may be a limited edition.

Naxos has done English choral music proud in the last few years and this is another fine release, which I’m very happy to recommend.

John Quinn

see also review by Michael Cookson

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