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Stainer’s Crucifixion

by on 30 March 2018

Fling Wide the Gates

The Crucifixion

by John Stainer, libretto by William John Sparrow-Simpson

St Mary’s Extended Parish Choir, St Mary’s Church, Hampton, 25th March

Review by Mark Aspen

In 2018, the supreme sacrifice may seem a concept almost infinitely remote for most of us. But, the ultimate sacrificing of one own life for another is part of the implicit covenant made by all recruits into the military, and what parents would not risk their own lives for those of their children? Taking the place of another who is facing death is perhaps a step further, but not remote.

Just a day before Palm Sunday 2018, when the extended choir of St Mary’s performed Stainer’s oratorio, at a supermarket near Carcassonne, the French gendarme Arnaud Beltrame did just that. He offered himself instead of the young woman being held hostage by a terrorist gunman, and was brutally killed as a consequence. (A few days later, President Macron was to place France’s highest award for bravery on Beltrame’s coffin as he was posthumously made a commander of the Legion of Honour.)

In a reflection in the brief mediation that preceded the oratorio, Ben Lovell, the Vicar of St Mary’s paid homage to Beltrame, whose actions mirrored the even greater sacrifice of Christ, which would be marked that coming Friday. On Good Friday Christ offered himself for all of mankind, as God’s gift at Easter.

The reading in the mediation was from Isaiah 53, a passage well-known not only to the faithful, but also to all aficionados of the oratorio through the most sublime passages in Handel’s Messiah, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief … despiséd”.

Under the inspired leadership of St Mary’s Choir Director and Organist, David Pimm, an occasional series of sacred choral music, requiems and oratorios, has gained a wide following amongst music lovers and those who are moved by these remarkable works.

St Mary's Choir

Musically, the Palm Sunday concert was magnificent. Even before entering the church, the evening’s music was embellished by ringing of the changes by an extended team from the Middlesex Bellringers on the church’s Major of eight bells, cast by Thomas Mears in 1831.

This was a significant year. The organ, restored in the summer of 2017, was a gift from King William IV, and the present church was consecrated on 1st September 1831, exactly one week before William’s coronation. Moreover, as Duke of Clarence, he had been instrumental in the church’s rebuilding.

Not only is the organ an outstanding instrument, but for Stainer’s Crucifixion is was played by Nat Keiller, an award-winning Royal College of Organists graduate. As introductory music before the service, Keiller played Charles John Stanley’s Organ Voluntary No 3 from his Opus 5 Ten Voluntaries for Organ (1748).

Stainer’s Crucifixion is a wide–ranging piece for the organ, with a number of virtuoso passages. The St Mary’s organ was extended shortly after the oratorio was first performed at St Marylebone in 1887, when Stainer was Professor of Music at Oxford. Whilst in the format of the various Passion oratorios by Bach and others of a century and a half previously, Stainer’s Crucifixion is typical of the expressive church music of the late 19th century, with its unshakably ardent believe in the Gospel. It is this that makes the piece so remarkable in its range from aching tenderness, through painful despondency, to majestic triumph.

The oratorio is very much an ensemble piece, choir and organ working in a finely entwined discourse, which is most evident in the powerful chorus piece, Processional to Calvary, which opens with a solo organ overture, expansive and stately, rising to a forte trumpeting, before the chorus demands, “Fling wide the gates”. This is almost immediately juxtaposed with a beautifully expressive solo, originally written for tenor voice but here transposed for the choir’s outstanding lyrical soprano Fiona Rowett.

Much of the work however, takes the form of dialogues between male soloists and narration involving the chorus. The majority of this interchange was undertaken by Jonathan Williams, an assured and accomplished tenor soloist and William Ormerod, who is remarkable in being able to extend the baritone register both high into the tenor range and down towards the bass. The Agony, written as tenor and bass solos and chorus, and based on text from St Mark’s gospel, which opens the piece, is a case in point. Ormerod develops the weightiness of the mood as it descends in questioning desolation though Christs’ words interspersed with the chorus’ reflections, and narrated by Williams’ recitative, with the cynical taunting of the Pharisees provided by Graham Beresford’s rich bass. The increasing abjection of Christ is underlined by the descent of the organ down through its own voice register.

The tenor solo The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation was finely delivered by Williams, pointing up the oxymoron in the contrast of majesty and humiliation, sustaining “sublime” in “Thou art sublime, far more awful in Thy weakness”, and rising to a strong crescendo as “crownless” is surmounted by “in glory interceding, Thou art King”! This then develops into the centre-piece of the oratorio, God So Loved the World, taken from St John’s gospel, a lyrical a-cappella chorus figure, opening pianissimo, rising to a forte crescendo with the words “everlasting life”, before a diminuendo into silence.

The dialogues depicting the first hours of the crucifixion, “Father, forgive them”, a tenor and male chorus recitative, and the bass and male chorus, “One of the malefactors” gave further demonstration of the strengths of St Mary’s choir, with the secure bass of John Sutton and the distinctively decorated tenor of Nally Fernando.

The final hours on the cross are largely depicted by the organ, notwithstanding fine passionate chorus and solo singing, such as the “When Jesus therefore saw His mother”, a tenor solo with male chorus, and the “Is it nothing” baritone solo. When the organ lowered its voice in “There was darkness over all the land”, the atmospheric rumbling shaking the building was awe-inspiring.

The “Is it nothing” motif is picked up in the chorus’ The Appeal of the Crucified, in a pianissimo “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?”, which builds brutally into the cry of the crowd “Crucify!!” Then the music and words fade away with “for why will ye die” … “Come unto Me”.

This working of volumes, of amplitude and silence, is one of the many strengths of the work, and indeed after the final recitative “After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished”, Stainer’s score implies silence. Silence from choir, from organ, from congregation … and by implication, from the world.

Mark Aspen
March 2018

Photography courtesy of Hampton Parish Church





From → Music, Reviews

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