Stainer The Crucifixion
It is easy to dismiss Stainer’s Crucifixion as the epitome of English musical disfunctionality in the nineteenth century. Yet, over 100 years after its premiere at Marylebone Parish Church in 1887, this work still has a following. Despite moments of questionable taste (I always find the progression of the recitative of “He made Himself of no reputation” especially hard to stomach) – and people vote with their feet – Stainer’s formula strikes a chord for a surprisingly broad audience. In its favour, it unfolds with a seamless ease, never jolting the listener with gratuitous theatricality or the type of rhetorical intensity which the English find mildly embarrassing. Emotional engagement here is about an unintrusive sobriety, affected by a glowing sentimental identification with the Saviour’s plight – all very Victorian but clearly a strong residue of such a temperament still remains. Listening to this music again after many years (originally, Classics for Pleasure’s Guildford Cathedral recording), one has to admire Stainer for writing a challenging work of sensible length which, without an orchestra, is achievable and satisfying for a capable parish choir: Stainer’s Crucifixion is a «celebration»of amateurism, that cherished English virtue.
In such a corporate spirit comes this new recording from ‘housewives’ choice’, Brian Kay. For all his experience as a high-level professional singer, Kay has worked a great deal with committed amateurs, in this case the Leith Hill Festival Singers, the festival of which he is director. There is indeed an underlying freshness of expression here, of singers with eyes and ears on stalks (even if the famous hymn “Cross of Jesus” is discernibly a touch flat) and a real sense of purpose to the performance. Even though fortified by the excellent BBC Singers, the choral forces sound less technically assured than recordings by Hickox (EMI, 6/86 – nla) or Scott and his St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, and yet many will enjoy the palpable sense of ritual which folklore status has given to The Crucifixion.
Much of the credit also goes to Margaret Phillips whose imaginative and genial registrations, not to mention her skilful accompaniment, provide notable support to the excellent contributions of Martyn Hill and Michael George. Hill’s portrayal of the text is clear and considered; he never resorts to histrionics to make up for some undistinguished melodic ideas and he uses his light and fragrant voice to bring an appropriate preciousness to the proceedings. The duet, “So Thou lifteth”, with the ever-assured and reassuring George, makes me wonder whether this is not one of the work’s gems, rather than the more usual whipping boy? Too often in this piece I hope for a bar or two of Mendelssohn, something momentarily inspired. An unselfregarding and genuine performance such as this probably makes as strong a case as can be made.'