Music review: The Crown of Thorns, by Robert Newton

by
03 May 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears a new Lenten cantata in Linton, Derbyshire

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IT IS not every parish church that has a setting of the Passion composed for it by its own organist.

When you think of the English short Passion cantatas that have been a feature of Holy Week in many Anglican and Nonconformist churches and chapels over the past 130 years or so — such as those by Stainer, Maunder, Somervell, William Lloyd Webber, and others — they tend to display a distinctive character and have been carefully designed for the forces employed. It is this fitting quality that characterises Robert Newton’s attractive new work for Christ Church, Linton, and Castle Gresley, in Derbyshire.

The title he has given it is The Crown of Thorns, inspired by the hymn that is sung here to the tune St Magnus, “The head that once was crowned with thorns”, and is placed at the end of this Passion.

The composer worked for more than a year on his setting. At its world première, it stood out in at least two ways: he uses a rather graphic “modern” text, possibly from a mix of sources, which gives the work a feeling of originality; and the music is carefully graded for local choral forces — very proficient ones — while at the same time giving prominence to more challenging writing and vivid characterisation for Jesus (the splendid Karl Harper, who brought a tangible poignancy to the part) and a particularly vital and energetic Narrator (Geoff Hampson).

The lucidity of these two singers especially, but also of others from the choir (an uncredited Pilate, to whom Newton allocates a substantial role, and the first Serving Girl who accosts Peter), contributed much to the drama and vigour. Early organ interludes (superbly played by the composer on Christ Church’s exciting three-manual instrument) constantly intensied the feel of the whole. Chromatic passages made for welcome variety: the ascending surges of the Chief Priests, the semitonal shifts of Jesus, and his poignant request to “anoint my body for the burial”. Several chorales emerged; all felt fresh and original.

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The choir showed added talents in passages of rubato, teased out by the conductor, Peter Merrick, and matching perfectly with the organ. There were characterful shifts of key (there might have been more), and unexpected shifts from minor to major, in a dramatic treatment of Peter’s second denial, in the searing “Away with him” and the unyielding fierceness, even brutality, with which they prevail upon Pilate, and the choir’s “All they that see me laugh me to scorn,” one of a host of points at which the choral writing was especially intelligent.

I had a few reservations: the nature of the piece called for repetition of patterns and phrases, and these might have been varied more to advantage. Rhythmic reliance on crotchets and quavers became somewhat repetitive, and it was noticeable how great a difference was made when a sequence of semiquavers burst out.

But this work was designed for the forces it was assigned to; and these doubts would not have been harboured by the singers. They went about it with zest, passion, and eagerness to tell the story in a wholly new way. On this achievement, they, the soloists, and the composer can only be congratulated. Parishes elsewhere might be equally glad to have such a performable and apt work at their disposal.

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