- The Crucifixion, for tenor, bass, chorus & organ
John Stainer's "The Crucifixion" is England's best-known example of the musical "Passion" -- inspired equally by the "Passion" settings of J.S. Bach, the oratorios of Felix Mendelssohn, and traditional Anglican service music. The resemblance to Bach is in the structural alteration between choruses and solo-voice recitatives; Mendelssohn's influence can be felt in the richness of some of the choral writing, as well as the occasional interplay between soloists and chorus as characters in the drama (similar to passages in "Elijah," for instance); and the entire work sounds like Anglican service music: understated, proper, accompanied by organ, and heavily reliant on choral passages for its expressive content. The Anglican influence explains the work's narrow appeal; the music does not reach out and demand to be heard, and in less than inspired hands it sounds pedantic -- a fatal blow when dealing with subject matter as emotionally potent as the suffering and death of Jesus. But in the right hands, details that often go overlooked or unrealized breathe life into the work. Well-timed changes of organ registration add dramatic shading to the narrative tenor and bass solos, coloring their words and punctuating long stretches of text that can ramble without sonic signposts. Attention to the pacing and dramatic content of the choral passages, especially the famous "God so loved the world," makes poignant vignettes out of hymn-like simplicity. And making sure that the words are clear, and not swallowed up in soup of vocal sound, allows the listener to get involved. Unfortunately, Timothy Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, along with soloists James Gilchrist and Simon Bailey, pass up most of those opportunities in this 2004 Naxos recording. Stephen Farr's organ accompaniment explores only a narrow range of sounds, often seeming perfunctory. Brown's choral conducting is fluid, but sometimes rushes through passages that could afford to breathe more, and in general lacks pacing. The Clare College Choir doesn't quite find a satisfactory blend; individual voices stick out, especially from the tenor section. Gilchrist and Bailey bring solid vocalism and good energy to their solos, but both of them sound hamstrung by a slavish approach to rhythm. In the end, though Stainer's music sounds acceptable here, it sounds more dated and less interesting than it should, and doesn't make a strong case for its own popularity. If you're looking to familiarize yourself with Stainer, or especially "The Crucifixion," try Barry Rose's recording on EMI with the Guildford Cathedral Choir first; it's a more vivid and imaginative realization.