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John Steane
Gramophone, October 2008

The great hymns (“Pange lingua” dominant) which are interspersed like Bach’s chorales are treated with tastefully modest invention and caring workmanship. The narrative sections, called “Gospels”, follow the tradition with tenor Evangelist and bass (or baritone) Christ, their originality lying much in the incorporation of the choir. …Bairstow’s Toccata-Prelude on “Pange lingua” is an inspired choice of voluntary.

American Record Guide, September 2008

Although he wrote string quartets, a piano concerto, and numerous songs, Charles Wood (1866-1926) is known almost exclusively for his contribution to Anglican church music; he was a student of Stanford, Parry, and Bridge. Wood's music is soundly built and unfailingly attractive, but lacks the ambition and level of difficulty to pull it from its intended market: parish and cathedral choirs.

The St Mark Passion answered a request from the Dean of King's College, Cambridge for an alternative to Stainer's Crucifixion in Passiontide. It is laid out roughly on the model of Bach's Passions with familiar hymns (better known then than now, at least in the US!) interspersed with the drama from the Gospel, as related by an Evangelist, Christ, and a third all-purpose character (Priest, Judas, Pilate). In this performance a Bairstow voluntary is added as a kind of postlude, and its tune ('pange Lingua') also appears in the Passion. Wood's work is very fine: fairly adventurous, chromatic harmony with a sure grip on the dramatic confrontation. At the same time it is somewhat trapped by its historical period and Anglican roots.

The effectiveness of the performance is due largely to Jonathan Vaughan, who plays the organ of St John's College Chapel, Cambridge. The registrations are often kaleidoscopic, changing every measure or two, but following and supporting the emerging drama to perfection. Choral parts are expertly taken by the mixed choir of Jesus College, which, by the way, also has a choir of men and boys. The soloists are less special. Simon Wall is an adequate Evangelist, but James Birchall is too tremulous in his role. All in all, though, this is an admirable release, recommended to anyone with interest in this style.

BBC Radio 3, May 2008

The end of the St Mark Passion by Charles Wood from 1920, and you heard two of his hymn settings surrounding the Fifth Gospel. The Evangelist was Simon Wall, with James Birchall as Christ, and the Choir of Jesus College Cambridge and organist Jonathan Vaughn directed by Daniel Hyde. The borrowed the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge for the recording, and it’s beautifully placed in the acoustic, with the organ most successfully balanced as well, as you hear from the Bairstow voluntary on the plainsong ‘Pange lingua’ which Wood uses to bookend the Passion. Hard to imagine this being done more effectively than it is in this budget-priced Naxos release, and it’s the only available recording. Move over Stainer…make way for the Wood!

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, May 2008

Naxos have released a setting of the St. Mark Passion from the Irish-born composer Charles Wood; a pupil of Stanford and Parry at the Royal College of Music (RCM). Also included on this attractive release is a short organ voluntary from Sir Edward Bairstow. The inspired choice of the Choir of Jesus College under the direction of Daniel Hyde, singing the music of Charles Wood in the chapel of St. John’s College Chapel maintains the strong Cambridge connection.

Born in Armagh in 1866 Charles Wood became one of the inaugural class of fifty students at the newly-founded RCM. In 1883 Wood was awarded an organ scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge later transferring across the city to Gonville and Caius. Appointed as a teacher at the RCM in 1888, Wood, the next year, became a lecturer at Caius College and was later made a fellow of the college. For several years Wood served as assistant conductor to Stanford with the Cambridge University Musical Society (CUMS). After Stanford’s death in 1924 Wood succeeded him as CUMS conductor and was appointed professor of music at Cambridge but served in the role for only two years until his death in 1926. In a respected teaching career Wood’s most notable pupils were Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells.

According to the great Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene, of all Stanford’s pupils Wood was the closest in style to the great teacher, “…both were Irishmen with thoughts alike on politics, religion and all outside things that had no direct dealings with music; both full of humour, one a Southerner, the other a Northerner, but with the romance of their country in every breath they drew. Wood’s settings of old Irish airs are so steeped in the Stanford idiom that it is hard to tell them apart ….” (Charles Villiers Stanford by Harry Plunket Greene, publ. Edward Arnold & Co. London (1935), p. 97).Plunket Greene, a friend of Stanford, considered Wood to be, “… a masterly song writer and part-song writer … He had the Irishman’s versatility and was equally successful as a writer of chamber music. His technique by all accounts was near perfect. He had learned the secrets of economy from his fellow-countryman and, as with him, his sense of humour showed in everything he did, filling his sails and steering him clear of the shoals of sentimentalism. Shy and gentle-voiced as he was, he was a delightful companion, with the stories and the twinkle in his eye which belonged to the country of his birth.” (pp. 252-3).

Wood composed prolifically in several genres, writing a large number of choral works, part-songs, a piano concerto and six string quartets. Today he is principally recognised as a composer of sacred music for the Anglican church, some of which has remained in the cathedral repertoire. This includes: Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Regale) in F major; Glory and Honour and Laud; ’Tis the day of resurrection; Hail, gladdening light and the Short Communion Service in The Phrygian Mode.

The substantial St. Mark Passion was completed by Wood in 1920 in response to a request from Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College. It was premiered on Good Friday in 1921 at King’s Chapel by the college choir directed by A. H. Mann. It seems that Milner-White thought that J.S. Bach’s settings of the Passion were too difficult for his choir and he wanted an alternative to Stainer’s ubiquitous Crucifixion (A Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer).

The score of the St. Mark Passion,performed in English, comprises six hymns for choir and congregation, interspersed with five excerpts from the Gospels. Commencing with a blazing organ solo the first hymn Sing, my tongue contains moments of robust exclamation of faith expertly conveyed by the mixed voiced choir. Hymn two, The Heavenly Word is exultantly sung and the contrasting hymn three, Lord, when we bow is calm and reverential. The fourth, My God, I love Thee is a beautiful and intimate expression of thanksgiving for Christ’s suffering. The highlight of the disc is the serene final verse sung so stunningly and gloriously by soprano Ruth Jenkins. The Faithful Cross! above all others is a reflective and gentle piece for female voices. The concluding hymn, Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory! is given a rousing and elated rendition by the mixed voices of the choir. The five Gospel excerpts, with organ accompaniment and occasional choir contributions, are all magnificently sung by Simon Wall (tenor) as the Evangelist; James Birchall (baritone) as Christ and Edward Grint (bass) in the roles of the High Priest, Judas and Pilate.

Sir Edward Bairstow, the renowned Yorkshire-born organist, teacher and composer is represented by his organ voluntary Toccata - Prelude on Pange lingua’. Bairstow was a student of John Farmer at Oxford’s Balliol College, later studying with Frederick Bridge and Walter Alcock at Westminster Abbey. Bairstow gained prominence with his appointments as organist at All Saints church, Norfolk Square, London in 1893, Wigan Parish church in 1899, Leeds Parish church in 1907, organist to the Leeds Festival in 1907 and 1910 and at York Minster in 1913, the latter a post he held until 1946. Bairstow became conductor of the York Musical Society and the Leeds Philharmonic Society, together with numerous other conducting engagements throughout the country. In 1929 he was appointed professor of music at Durham University, a non-resident post that enabled him to continue his duties at York.

The majority of Bairstow’s compositions are liturgical such as Services and Anthems and numerous peices for organ. He also wrote secular works, for example the Variations on an Original Theme for two pianos (1908) and Six Variations on an Original Theme for violin and piano (1916). He is represented on this disc by his organ voluntary Toccata and Prelude on Pange lingua’ (Sing my tongue) to words by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Organist Jonathan Vaughn provides a splendid performance of the Toccata and Prelude on Pange lingua’ that contrasts sparkling drama with lilting good humour.

The sound quality provided by the Naxos engineers at St. John’s College Chapel is of the highest standard. In the booklet the essays by Keith Anderson and Daniel Hyde about Charles Wood and the St. Mark Passion are informative but they mention nothing about Bairstow.

Lovers of sacred choral music will be delighted with this quite superbly sung and recorded setting of the St. Mark Passion. The disc is worth obtaining alone for Ruth Jenkins’s soprano solo on the hymn is My God, I love Thee.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

Charles Wood was born in Ireland in 1866, but made his musical career in England after having studied composition with Stanford, Parry and Bridge.

Immediately following his graduation he was appointed teacher at the Royal College before taking up a similar appointment at Cambridge University. Today he is remembered almost entirely by his church music, though a recording of his A minor string quartet has pointed to his gift as a composer of chamber music. He was essentially working within the Anglican church, though his output was distinctly aimed at a populist market within that religious context. The St. Mark Passion was completed in 1921 for the King’s College Choir who performed it on Good Friday of that year. If you warm to Stainer’s Crucifixion you will certainly enjoy this. Both share the good sense of using an organ accompaniment so as to allow general church use, though Wood does have parts for four capable soloists, particularly in the tenor role of the Evangelist. Wood’s problem was finding readily memorable ‘tunes’, and we have to be content with skilled craftsmanship and some rewarding music for the chorus. But that plays to the strength of this recording with the fine Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, beguiling our ears with singing of the highest quality under the direction of Daniel Hyde. Of the solo quartet Simon Wall’s tenor is notable, his voice is intrinsically British in quality, his diction excellent, and he moves easily around the top end of his range. The disc is completed by Edward Bairstow’s Toccata and Prelude on Pange lingua played by Jonathan Vaughn who has already provided the very well balanced accompaniment in the Passion. Not an earth-shattering piece, but it does show one of the most persuasive recordings of an organ I have ever heard from Naxos. Can we have more, please?

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