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Music review: St Mark Passion, by Oliver Tarney

07 June 2019

David Steven was at St Endellion Easter Music Festival in north Cornwall to hear it


THE Church does not usually mark Good Friday by handing out treats; they come, if at all, on Easter Day. This year, however, the St Endellion Easter Music Festival in north Cornwall came up with a treat of the first order.

Oliver Tarney, who “does” his music at Winchester, gave us the St Mark Passion, with a full orchestra and chorus and eight soloists, all young singers early in their professional careers. Indeed, it is a combination of professional musicians and talented amateurs that gives Endellion Music Festivals, at Easter and the in the summer, a rather special feel: indeed, everyone — however famous — has to pay to take part.

Tarney’s St Mark Passion is not an easy piece: there is a rich complexity of music, and both orchestra and chorus had to work very hard to get to the extraordinary standard achieved. Once or twice, in years past, I have taken my life in my hands and voiced criticism of the chorus, mainly over volume control of Passiontide hymns. On this occasion, they were beyond compare, and with the orchestra produced a texture of music which was stunning. They were not in traditional SATB blocks, but all mixed up, and this was especially effective in Part 2, when three separate choruses are singing different sets of words, along with the soloists as Jesus, Pilate, and Barabbas.

Blending in with the Passion narrative are other Gospel elements: we start with the parable of the sower and the woman suffering from bleeding. Soloists did not stand at the front as in a Bach Passion, but sang walking up a crowded aisle, or from the back of the church, which is the way Endellion normally does opera.

Judas has some pained singing to do, and, after a brief reference to the Last Supper and Gethsemane, the chorus sings the parable of the vineyard. On to scribes, Pharisees, Peter, the maid, and the trial.

Part 3 has one line on Christ’s death, and then Jesus in the boat in a storm, and part of Psalm 107. Short texts of scripture are woven together or against each other, and short verses by Lucia Quinault interpose. The ending is dramatic and not to be revealed here.

The work was conducted by Adam Hickox, who was born during a Summer Festival when his father, Richard, was with us. Adam is at the end of his final studies at the Royal Academy of Music and already well into a professional career. He and all the musicians did extraordinary things with this work.

It is not always easy to know if clapping a Bach or Tarney Passion is a good thing. Clapping in the middle is usually a mistake. But no words here can reproduce either the awed silence — the longest I have ever known at a concert — or the tumultuous cheers and clapping that eventually broke out. All those involved were at an amazing evening, a world première of a work that I hope will travel the world; but the singers and players alike need to know that some very hard graft was involved to produce the effect it had on all of us on Good Friday on the north Cornish coast.

Canon David Steven is a retired priest living in Wadebridge, Cornwall.

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