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A 1920s English Passion

02 April 2012

by Roderic Dunnett


CHARLES WOOD, whose St Mark Passion has just received a rare revival in Salisbury, was a younger colleague of Stanford on the teaching staff at the Royal College, and for many years at Cambridge. Wood (1866-1926) succeeded Stanford as Professor only two years before his own untimely death, aged 60.

He was versatile. One of those operas that we hear little of is Wood’s The Pickwick Papers. Cambridge produced from him (as from Parry and Ralph Vaughan Williams) the usual flutter of music for university Greek plays. He wrote large-scale settings of Milton, Swinburne, Whitman. There was a flurry of string quartets; and, of course, a welter of glorious church anthems, whose climactic power is on a par with, say, Bairstow.

This performance, conducted by the Farrant Singers’ newly appointed music director, Andrew Mackay, could scarcely have done the St Mark Passion more justice. The work was planned in 1920 by Eric Milner-White — fresh back from decorated war service, newly appointed Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, a founder of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, and ultimately to become Dean of York — as a riposte and rival to Stainer’s Crucifixion and the nearly as popular Olivet to Calvary, whose composer, J. H. Maunder, died that year.

The Passion’s opening was galvanising: Timothy Hone’s organ playing was an asset throughout (as later in RVW), teasing out from a limited registration some of the remarkable detail and decoration that Wood sneaks in below the vocal line. Without it, the work can wax pallid in places; with such subtle organ colouring, it gains immensely.

The Farrants produce a rewarding unified, well-focused sound; this reflects the choir’s striking discipline and precision: the quality of their consonants, for instance, and their sheer attentiveness ensure that the sound emerges as lucid and remarkably pure. This gave early sections their feeling of Bachian urgency; while the plainsong and other hymns (“Sing my tongue, the glorious battle” provides the sizzling start) had a tremendous warmth, and a mesmerising appeal.

The tenor Hugh Hetherington’s wonderfully versatile, seasoned musicianship lent a fluid and florid character that recalled his withering Britten staged performances in Salisbury Cathedral; it helped the Wood to glow in places. Philip Lawson, in his first solo outing in Salisbury since leaving the King’s Singers, was to give a sensationally beautiful reading in the second half, beefed up by some first-rate choral singing, of Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. But his portrayal of our Lord under duress lacked bite. As with Bach’s St John Passion, the exposed role of Christ needs a personal stage presence — there are colleagues in the trade one might easily learn this from — and a shrewder gauging of the needs of the space where you are singing. Alistair Watson had a good stab at several remaining parts; but the same applied.

The Passion arguably loses impetus: you might expect from Wood a tight structure, but it was hard to hear one, and any late 19th-century chromatic colouring is scarcely followed through. The successful opening has shades of Liszt’s Christus, but I found myself inevitably saying, “It’s not Elgar.” (I felt similar doubts decades ago, when I sang in the work at school. Our Director of Music, loyally doing his bit, was Wood’s great-nephew.)

But when Stanford’s Latin Magnificat, dating from 1918 and dedicated to Parry’s memory, burst upon us, one sensed a different league. There is something in those gutsy engineered build-ups and delicate contrasts that could only be Stanford (who, symphonies apart, wrote wonderful songs and string quartets).

The Farrants’ discipline and colouring were exhilarating: witness their thrillingly controlled, protracted unison at “divites dimisit inanes”, or their razor-sharp precision for “deposuit potentes”.

Howells’s Collegium Regale Te Deum was another work designed for King’s: here, the Farrants’ agile girls dazzled in trickily exposed high leads; while Howells’s masterly writing was mirrored to the letter by Mackay’s lithe command, nifty, flexible dynamics, articulate leads, and shrewd, slick grasp of overall structure. The Farrants’ go-ahead new regime looks to be a winner.

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