PERFORMANCES of Sir John Stainer’s short Passion cantata The Crucifixion (1887) are rarer than they used to be. In Kent, there was a surprising chance to hear a version with a difference. Maidstone Choral Union, in its regular venue, All Saints’, Maidstone, came up with a new take on the work.
Under its conductor, Martin Hindmarsh, it offered a relatively straightforward performance (prefaced by the brief failure of the organ). The Stainer did not disappoint. It was helped along by a young tenor, John Findon, whose voice had an attractive, gentle quality that recalled the great Richard Lewis in his heyday. The recitatives, shared with the bass (John Holland-Avery), were attractively delivered, and the traditionally salient passages such as “Thou art the King” and “So thou liftest thy divine petition” were all notable moments.
Stainer’s Crucifixion is renowned for its very singable hymns, and the chorus “God so loved the world”, which is often performed separately.
The original aspect of this Stainer occasion was that there followed a new work by one of his great-grandsons (two were present in the choir), David Pennant.
He has conceived a quite racy new work, The Resurrection, as a sequel to its predecessor. Setting the work for three soloists, not two, he has conjured a series of scenes — “Sunrise”, Mary arriving at the tomb; “On the Road”, the story of Cleopas; a powerful treatment of the story of doubting Thomas — all of which generate a feeling of hope, faith, and conviction. There are some enlivening faster passages, too: Mary running to the tomb, with the chorus in eager attendance; or the vigorous chorus setting “Alive for evermore”.
There were a full-scale hymn taken from Purcell (or Jeremiah Clarke); a jazzy spiritual feel for another of the hymns, with added colouring from sections of perpetuo moto in the organ; and an organ envoi that turns out to be the preface to a final chorus.
All this shows that The Resurrection is, quite deliberately, a mongrel work infused with a quiet wit, well overseen by Hindmarsh, not least in the dramatised sequences (Thomas, Peter). While the choir was relatively staid in the Stainer sections, they came alive and flourished with the more bouncy possibilities of this sequel.
THERE was a further concert only a week later in All Saints’ which really did bring the venue alive. This was by the Sutton Valence Choral Society, based just south of Maidstone, devoted to the music of Mozart’s pupil, and Weber’s colleague, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who succeeded Haydn as Director of Music at the Eszterházy Palace in Vienna.
This Hummelfest was a triumph, not just because of the high level of performance, but because rarely does any English choral society have the courage to programme a concert focused entirely on a composer of whom many music-lovers have scarcely heard. Audience numbers inevitably droop, and that’s a pity; for what we heard was rip-roaring.
The best known offering was Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto in E, which does get a few gutsy airings and is certainly a work of great spirit, as shown here by Kevin Ashman, whose interplay with the capable Beresford Sinfonia revealed a work of elevated panache. But it was in Hummel’s vocal and choral works that this concert proved so thrilling and memorable.
Two Marian works, Salve Regina and Alma Virgo, the first, taken from the service of Compline, proved so wonderfully expressive in the hands of the soprano Stefanie Kemball-Read, with vivid coloratura (offset by touches of clarinet obbligato), that it recalled the defiance of Mozart’s Queen of the Night, or, even more, his explosive solo cantatas like Exultate Jubilate. Venturing close to Psalm 23, it is also achingly beautiful, as in “Ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle”.
The flamboyance of Alma Virgo is perhaps even more dazzling: Haydn was still alive when Hummel wrote this small masterpiece, beautifully orchestrated, and with chorus added for the buoyant words “in aeternum jubilantes”, which typifies the kind of music commissioned for the court of Prince Eszterházy.
But the work which enabled the choir, under Bryan Gipps, to shine fully is the Mass in D minor, which Hummel seemingly penned in the same year, 1805. Here it is even possible to feel the weightier influence of Beethoven, for whom Hummel would later be a pall-bearer. The opening Kyries are so substantial, you might think them part of an opera chorus; the writing is accomplished, in fact brilliantly imaginative, at every turn, and, though Hummel perhaps uses the soloists as a quartet where more purity of colouring might have been achieved by placing them separately, the impact is bracing.
The interspersing of choir sopranos with the soloists makes a strong effect at “Qui tollis” in the Gloria, and, as the later “Tu solus” builds, we seem to look ahead not so much to Beethoven as to Berlioz. The soft, oboe-led Credo makes a complete contrast, as does the plaintive tenor line for “Et incarnatus”; and here Hummel does indeed change the colouring by using just alto, tenor, and bass solos, which makes a surprising difference.
The pleasing thing about the choir as a whole is its uniformity: this is a choral sound that is strong, expressive, and lucid. Tenors excelled at “Et exspecto resurrectionem”, not thundering away, but floating as if to conjure up a serene anticipation of Mendelssohn. Very professional and effective.
Supported by rich orchestration — four horns provide crucial support, and indeed sound like huntsmen in the triumphant conclusion — the work leaves us in no doubt that Hummel was a master, a perfectionist exponent of the Classical style as it moves toward earliest Romanticism.
All the soloists deserved praise, but most especially Laura Fowler, from the choir, who partnered the other soloists to perfection, producing a sound of assurance and real beauty.