THERE are more musical settings of St Luke’s Passion than you might expect; and one of the least-known is an English one, by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. It existed only in pencil manuscript, but David Johnson, former assistant organist at Derby Cathedral, traced it to the Britten-Pears library in Aldeburgh, and, after copying and editing, directed a performance during Lent at Derby Cathedral, with the cathedral’s mixed-voice voluntary choir.
Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) was well-known until his death, which coincided with a shift in fashion that consigned many early-20th-century tonal composers to the bottom drawer. A contemporary of Bax and Howells and a sincere Christian, Gibbs wrote plenty of sacred works, including The Birth of Christ (heard at the 1930 Three Choirs Festival), Deborah and Barak, an Evening Service embracing Cantate Domino and Deus Misereatur (neither often set), and numerous anthems, motets, carols, and hymn tunes. Another Passion cantata, Behold the Man, which was published by OUP, was first performed in 1955.
Thanks partly to an active society (www.armstronggibbs.com), which since 2008 has held four festivals in his honour in his home village of Great Baddow, near Chelmsford, Armstrong Gibbs (he disliked the name Cecil) is resurfacing. His solo violin works, the choral symphony Odysseus, and a Suite for violin and sundry orchestral works have been recorded on the Dutton or Guild labels. There are two more symphonies (including A Westmorland Symphony, composed while he was living in Cumbria), much incidental music, and three comic operas.
Gibbs is best known for his solo songs with piano, which are highly rated by singers. Odysseus has been likened to Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, and in the present St. Luke Passion you can certainly hear elements of VW’s style, who was Gibbs’s teacher at the Royal College of Music (where Gibbs himself became a professor), not least a haunting use of parallel fifths, and occasional sumptuous chords. The conductor characterises the work as “Modern Romantic. . . it uses conventional harmony, but not always the progressions you would expect.” In other passages, there is “a slight VW input in its modal inflections”. One scene, before Herod, has a mock-Oriental tinge.
This St. Luke Passion was completed near the end of the Second World War. Is it worth recovering? Definitely. It is for choir, two main soloists, and organ, and benefited here, above all, from Johnson’s nicely judged pacings, and from the cathedral organist, Hugh Morris, who accompanied with a wealth of registrations, both dramatic and sympathetic. The organ part maintains interest, deftly handling a distinctive, dotted-rhythm Leitmotif.
The choir was pretty secure: a little tentative in places, but rich, assured, and expressive in others, capably abreast of Gibbs’s polyphonic approach: the final two choruses were scintillating.
Owing to a long hold-up on the way, I missed the best early sequences. The work avoids elaborate emotive arias of the Bach type, but unfolds the narrative forcefully and appealingly. It stands up well in comparison with the Passion cantatas of Stainer, Maunder, Charles Wood, or William Lloyd Webber, and some sections are preferable. Despite the generally tonal manner, at key moments Gibbs uses surprising — even tortuous — chromaticisms and hybrid chord sequences, which enhance interest. He writes with great competence, here and there rivetingly, for the chorus; and the turbae (crowd choruses) are explosive and quite unusual (Gibbs’s periodic use of word repetition made a strong impact).
The tenor, Samuel Horan, a gifted choir member, brought the necessary flow and urgency to the (quite tricky) part of the Evangelist, contributing handsomely to the success of the evening (although his projection was not always as assured as when he echoed Christ’s “Why hast thou forsaken me?”).
But it was the singing of Christ, by Canon Christopher Moorsom, Precentor of Derby Cathedral and a former Choral Scholar of Christ Church, Oxford, which caught the pathos best. He brought out the quiet forcefulness of Jesus, and, conversely, his tenderness and empathy (in eloquent, moving arioso passages echoing Gibbs’s song-writing) with equal skill. He endowed Christ’s utterances, such as “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” with an expressiveness that inspired a reflective and attentive response.