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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera - Stainer: The Crucifixion; Monteverdi: Vespers of 1610

03/25/2018 1:00 pm
03/25/2018 4:30 pm


Sunday Afternoon at the Opera host Keith Brown writes:

My special programming for this Palm Sunday comes in two parts. First, a Victorian chestnut: John Stainer's The Crucifixion: A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer (1887). Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) was the very model of an English church musician. He crafted a little oratorio especially for good amateur singers who make up a well-trained parish church choir. Does The Crucifixion display true pathos in an accessible vocal style, or is it simply Victorian bathos? Even critics in Stainer's day described it as crude and sentimental, yet it has secured for itself a permanent niche in the Anglican choral repertoire. More than a century after its premiere at St. Marylebone parish church in London it was still being performed there on Good Friday. And it has been recorded from time to time.

I have broadcast Stainer's Crucifixion twice before, first on Palm Sunday, April 5, 1998, when I aired the 1997 Chandos release of a recording made at All Saints Church, Tooting, London. This was certainly a professional account of the oratorio, since it involved the BBC Singers. Then on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2006 came the Naxos CD presenting The Crucifixion as recorded at Guildford Cathedral in Surrey with the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

This Passiontide I offer you an older recording of this work, taped in 1961 in the chapel of St. John's College, Cambridge. George Guest directed the Choir of St. John's College, second only to the Choir of King's College, Cambridge as an Anglican choral institution of renown. Heard in solo capacity are tenor Richard Lewis and bass Owen Brannigan, both of whom are fine professional singers indeed. Decca originally issued the St. John's Crucifixion on a stereo LP in 1962. The recording has been digitally remastered for reissue on compact disc as part of a 42 CD Decca package of the complete Argo recordings the choir made with Guest over the period 1958-81.

During Lent or Eastertide I have often aired recordings of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610," also known as the "Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary." This is one of the most important compositions from the dawn of the baroque to have come down to us in printed form. The full score of Monteverdi's liturgical masterwork doesn't quite exist. The partbooks of the music are endlessly problematic for modern editors and musicologists. No one knows exactly how the Vespers were intended to be performed. The musical numbers in grand concertato style suggest the use of a large choir and instrumental group suiting the monumental scale of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, where Monteverdi was appointed Maestro di Cappella after the publication of his Vespers.

But the vocal score could also be realized one-to-a-part as liturgical chamber music for the private chapel of the Gonzaga family of Mantua who were his previous employers. In fact, all of this music could originally have been composed for a service not in honor of the Virgin Mary but for St. Barbara, the patron saint of Mantua Cathedral. Monteverdi may have later adapted the various numbers for broader use, as well as to show off his many-faceted abilities. One of these abilities was as a composer of opera. In the introductory Deus in adiutorium section of the Vespers he parodies the opening fanfare of his opera L'Orfeo.

The latest of so many speculative recorded interpretations of the Vespers came out last year on two compact discs through the Linn record label of Glasgow, Scotland. John Butt directs the singers and period instrumentalists of the Dunedin Consort of Edinburg, augmented by His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts.