John Stainer: The Crucifixion. Choir of St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh / Duncan Ferguson. © 2024 Delphian Records Ltd


Fling Wide the Gates

KEITH BRAMICH listens to Delphian Records' new recording of John Stainer's 'The Crucifixion'

'... excellent and committed performance ...'


I have to confess to some bias against the subject of English composer John Stainer's work on this disc, which is the very crux - no pun intended - of the Christian faith. Part of this stems from the age itself ... all that incessant Victoriana, especially in choral music, which didn't stand up well to the music I experienced growing up in the 1960s and 70s. The secularism of that period didn't help. Then there was the 'out of the door ... line on the left ... one cross each' Monty Python film The Life of Brian which Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood - a former Bishop of Southwark, in a famous (and since lampooned) 1979 interview with John Cleese and Michael Palin, attempted to accuse of ridiculing Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and death, in (to quote Muggeridge) 'an extremely cheap and tenth-rate way'.

On a more personal note, Stainer's The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer is the first work that I conducted when I took over, at short notice, a community choir in Worcestershire (UK), and coincidentally quite near (geographically) to St Michael's Tenbury, where Stainer had been organist from the age of sixteen. That would probably have remained a positive memory had I not, several years later, in the same community choir role, argued with the local vicar about the use of COVID-19 face masks when singing - I was in favour of wearing them - which almost certainly hastened both the folding of the choir and my departure from the job. This is another reason why, for me, Stainer's Crucifixion has rather mixed memories.

None of the above should cheapen in any way John Stainer's pioneering work as a musicologist, organist, composer and choral director, or this excellent and committed Delphian recording by the Choir of St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Edinburgh, a city for which I have a big affection. The recording includes contributions from members of the Chapter House Singers and the cathedral congregation, recorded 22-26 May 2023.

Listen — John Stainer: The Agony (The Crucifixion)
(DCD34275 track 2, 0:38-1:21) ℗ 2024 Delphian Records :

The extensive, detailed and fascinating music notes accompanying this recording are by British musicologist Jeremy Dibble, whose 2007 book John Stainer: A Life in Music was published by Boydell Press. One fact I discovered from reading these notes is that John Stainer was 'H M Inspector of Music in Schools and Training Colleges', taking over in this role from a fellow composer, the Worcester-born John Pyke Hullah who was an ancestor of one of my Worcester school friends, Peter Hullah. (Peter and I were both in Harry Bramma's inspiring O-level music class at King's School, Worcester, with fellow pupils including Revd Mark Gretason, Tim Minton and Adrian Partington.) Dibble makes the point that Stainer's government position indicated his and UK democracy's liberal leanings at the time, and that The Crucifixion was specifically written for liturgical performance in modest settings with organ accompaniment and without much technical difficulty, great length or expense.

Using text from the King James Bible, combined with poetic contributions by Stainer's colleague William John Sparrow Simpson, John Stainer's work tells the story of Christ's passion and crucifixion in twenty movements. The longest of these is the 'Processional to Calvary' - the hill near Jerusalem, also called Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified - which contains the chorus with the following words:

Fling wide the gates,
For the Saviour waits to tread in His royal way
He has come from above in His power and love, to die on this Passion day.

Listen — John Stainer: Processional to Calvary (The Crucifixion)
(DCD34275 track 3, 3:49-4:41) ℗ 2024 Delphian Records :

Arguably, this kind of Victorian rhyming diminishes the tale being told, but of course it all depends on one's perspective. I feel that this new performance conducted by Duncan Ferguson, the most recent in a whole series of well-known recordings, provides one of the best chances of the work being taken seriously. As I listen now to 'Fling wide the gates', I find that I do take it seriously, but for the wrong reasons, and can't banish the thought that we must fling open all possible entry points into Palestine to try to save the lives of its beseiged residents.

Stainer was influenced profoundly by the music of J S Bach, with the five hymns punctuating this work perhaps emulating Bach's chorales, but certainly allowing for congregational participation.

Listen — John Stainer: All for Jesus (The Crucifixion)
(DCD34275 track 20, 2:13-3:00) ℗ 2024 Delphian Records :

These hymns, in my opinion, don't reach anywhere near as far as the J S Bach chorales, but there are, certainly, moments of great tenderness and beauty in this Stainer work, such as the duet, sung very sensitively on this recording by tenor Liam Bonthrone and baritone Arthur Bruce.

Listen — John Stainer: So Thou Liftest Thy Divine Petition (The Crucifixion)
(DCD34275 track 12, 1:50-2:48) ℗ 2024 Delphian Records :

A lovely recording, then, of a work about which the critics may still argue. And if my mind wanders while listening, even at the start of Christian Holy Week and during Ramadan and Nisan, then maybe this isn't the fault of John Stainer or the words he set, but rather of the contemporary ramifications to three different religions of a nearly two thousand year-old troubled Middle East hotspot.

Copyright © 23 March 2024 Keith Bramich,
Gloucestershire, UK




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