Cumbria Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
1:01 AM 2nd March 2024

Classical Music: Stainer The Crucifixion

Stainer The Crucifixion

Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
Duncan Ferguson.
Liam Bonthrone tenor. Arthur Bruce baritone.
Imogen Morgan organ.

With the pupils and staff of St Mary’s Music School, and members of the Chapter House Singers and the cathedral congregation

Delphian DCD34275

Which side do you fit into regarding Stainer’s Crucifixion? Do you find it banal or uplifting in its musical writing?

Despite its popularity in America and on this side of the pond, there are those, including Stainer himself, who thought little of it, going so far as to say it was "rubbish". 

The late music critic Fritz Spiegel, in his book Musical Blunders and Other Curiosities, writes of Stainer:

'First singer: What do you think about Stainer’s Crucifixion?

Second singer: Bloody Good idea.'

In Kenneth Long’s marvellous Music of the English Church, he writes:

‘For his most popular piece, Stainer did not even have the advantage of magnificent words. Instead, he had a libretto, which, for sheer banality and naivety, would be difficult to beat. Sparrow-Simpsons appalling doggerel set to Stainer’s squalid music is a monument to the inane.’

I am on the side of those who enjoy it. Having sung it since I was a boy chorister and also conducted it as a choir director, I think Stainer gets the drama of the Passiontide story, and it does, after all, contain a very fine hymn tune All for Jesus and the motet God so loved the world. Plus, Stainer got the timing right—70 minutes is plenty without the luxury of an orchestra. 

This new release will, I hope, silence the detractors for no other reason than a wonderful performance from Duncan Ferguson and the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, who are joined by two rising-star Scottish soloists and, in the hymns, by a nave-full of local young musicians and the cathedral’s own worshippers to create a true sense of the musical community spirit that the composer had in mind.

In this exceptionally fine rendition, the control of the cathedral choir when unaccompanied is marvellous and well-balanced. It was ingenious to record the congregational parts in the cathedral’s nave with the worshippers and young musicians, as it enables Imogen Morgan to let rip with wonderful hymn accompaniments, but also to colour the expressive elements of the score with splendid stop registrations.

The dynamics, tuning and diction from Ferguson’s choir are first-class, whether it be the attack on words in the ‘crucify’ section in ‘The Appeal of the Crucified’ or the tenors and basses in the recitative ‘And one of the malefactors’. The sound is confident and magisterial at times, as well as tender and meditative when required. The whole ensemble captures the emotion well, and the pause after the tenor sings ‘And he bowed his head and gave up the ghost’ efficaciously adds to the drama before the climax of the last hymn.

There are two stars on this disc that I would expect to hear more from in the future: tenor Liam Bonthrone and baritone Arthur Bruce contribute excellent solos; their voices are stunning. Their duets are a delight.

Anyone who wants to re-evaluate this work would do well to listen to this recording, as I am sure it will bolster its popularity.

Stainer at St Marys 
Stainer at St Marys Photo: