Notes and Editorial Reviews
An excellent performance of a work that deserves more attention.
Charles Wood’s St. Mark Passion might be said to spring from the same well as such pieces as Stainer’s Crucifixion (1887) or Maunder’s Olivet to Calvary (1904). These works, of which Stainer’s is by a long way the best, were produced to give Victorian parish choirs of a reasonable standard music with which they could mark Holy Week. Commonly such pieces would incorporate hymns as a way of involving the congregations in much the same way that the chorales function in Bach’s Passion settings.
Wood’s work, which was composed in 1920, was written at the behest of Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), a remarkable Anglican cleric who, at that time, was
Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, a post that he held from the end of Word War I until 1941, when he became Dean of York Minster. Milner-White had a strong interest in the role of music in the liturgy – it was he who instituted the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s – and, as Daniel Hyde points out in his useful booklet note, he decided to invite Wood to compose this Passion setting because he felt that parochial choirs needed at least to have an alternative to Stainer et al. Wood’s setting of the Passion was first sung in King’s College Chapel, by the college choir under A H Mann, on Good Friday 1921. Wood was an obvious person to turn to for this assignment as he had impeccable credentials in the field of church music at the time and he was a Cambridge man through and through; he occupied various posts in the University from 1888 onwards, finally succeeding his old teacher, Stanford, as Professor of Music in 1924.
The structure of the work is straightforward. St. Mark’s narrative is divided into five sections or Gospels during which the story is told sometimes by the choir and sometimes by the tenor Evangelist. The first Gospel deals with the Last Supper; Gospel II with Gethsemane; Peter’s denial is related in Gospel III; while Gospel IV tells of Christ’s appearance before Pilate and Gospel V describes the crucifixion itself.
In between these Gospels, and at the very beginning and end, the choir sing appropriate hymns. I didn’t have access to a score so I don’t know if Daniel Hyde has cut out some verses from the hymns but in this performance the most that we hear in any hymn is four verses. This brevity on the part of Wood or Hyde is welcome for in Stainer’s Crucifixion, for example, some of the hymns do tend to outstay their welcome.
Wood’s setting differs from the aforementioned works by Maunder and Stainer in that he does not include any solo arias; apart from the hymns all that we get is narrative. Also he doesn’t give the choir any oratorio-style choruses. I welcome this because in Crucifixion the choruses are, frankly, the weakest sections of the work by some distance while Olivet to Calvary is even worse in this respect – and is a much inferior piece to the Stainer, in any event.
So in some respects Wood’s work could be regarded as somewhat austere; there is nothing showy about the writing though the organ part is sometimes appropriately descriptive. However, Wood is not dull or foursquare in his choral writing and the work has a freshness and, above all, a sincerity that I found impressive. It helps, I’m sure, that the performance is a good one. Simon Wall has a light, clear and flexible voice, which he uses intelligently and effectively. His narration is involving yet has just the right degree of restraint. James Birchall is just as good in the role of Christ, singing with appropriate dignity. Edward Grint has much less to do but he sings his brief solos satisfactorily.
The choir is excellent. They sing with an appealing youthful freshness yet there’s body in the tone as well. The voices are well blended and tuning and diction are very good. When Wood requires them to be vigorous or dramatic they respond very well but it’s their quieter singing that impresses particularly. Thus, the Fifth Gospel, which is unaccompanied throughout, is very sensitively sung. I’d also single out for special praise the way they sing the hymn, ‘My God I love Thee’ after the Third Gospel. The singing here is dedicated and the final verse is distinguished by radiantly pure solo soprano descant, which Ruth Jenkins delivers quite beautifully. Daniel Hyde has clearly trained his young choir splendidly and he and they perform Wood’s piece with conviction.
Jonathan Vaughn’s organ playing is absolutely first class and, having provided sensitive and very supportive accompaniment for the singers he rounds off the disc with a fine performance of Bairstow’s Toccata – Prelude. This is an ideal choice, not least because it ends quietly, which I think is most appropriate given what has gone before.
I wouldn’t claim that Wood’s St. Mark Passion is a neglected masterpiece. However, it’s a very well-crafted, sincere piece and it’s far from lacking in interest. It’s a good alternative to Crucifixion and comparable pieces and I’d welcome a chance to sing in it myself. I hope that this excellent performance, captured in very good sound, will win it wider attention for it deserves to be better known.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
St Mark Passion by Charles Wood
James Birchall (Baritone),
Jonathan Vaughn (Organ),
Ruth Jenkins (Soprano),
Simon Wall (Tenor),
Edward Grint (Bass)
Cambridge Jesus College Choir
Written: 1920; England
Length: 55 Minutes 30 Secs.
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