SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD: Songs Vol. 1.
Stephen Varcoe: baritone,
Clifford Benson: piano.
Hyperion CDA67123 78m
Stanford's songs on record have a history dating back to 1905 when "Mopsa"
appeared contemporaneously as a printed score and as a single-sided G&T
by Stanley Kirkby and an unknown pianist. So punctual a start was not followed
up. "Classic" recordings are few. We have two from Ferrier (originally radio
recordings; a further "Fairy Lough" from a 1951 Rome recital exists in the
Italian Radio archives), a handful by the likes of Plunket Greene and Roy
Henderson, mostly untransferred as yet, and the first piece on the new disc
recalls a performance that opened many ears, the Baker/Moore "La Belle Dame
sans merci". Creditable as the new one is, the spine-chilling hush of the
opening in that older version, and the dramatic power of its climax, come
from a different world of interpretation. Less expectedly the recording,
of the piano in particular, is better focused as well.
Anything remotely resembling a systematic survey of this music has been carried
out by Hyperion, who in 1982 recorded a pair of LPs (45 songs in all) with
the tenor James Griffett and the pianist Clifford Benson. Unfortunately,
these were among Hyperion's few near-failures. In part this was due to a
choice of repertoire which suggested limited knowledge (surely anyone who
includes "Witches' Charms" and the "Elfin Pedlar" in its entirety must be
unaware of a large amount of material not only finer but better suited to
this particular voice?). Another problem was that original and folksong settings
were mixed together without always indicating which were which. This gave
the uninformed listener a misleading picture since Stanford differentiated
clearly between the two. Original songs which could pass as folksong settings
are practically non-existent. Then there were Robert Matthew-Walker's notes,
so effusively hyperbolic - in what way could D sharp minor be called an
"astonishing key" in 1918? - as to be counter-productive. And finally the
performances. Griffett's light tenor voice at its best is well-schooled but
limited in range and quite outparted by the dramatic "Lament" which should
not have been chosen for him. At times he sounds under real strain and slightly
croaky (did he have a cold coming on?), giving a fatal heaviness to the "Elfin
Pedlar" songs which, if they are to work at all, need the lightest, easiest
of emissions (they were almost certainly intended for children to sing).
Frankly, Stanford's later work is not tenor territory ("Sweeter than the
Violet", "For ever mine" "Mopsa" and "Rose of Killarney" are pieces which
Griffett would probably have done very well) and the inevitable final impression
is that voice and music were ill-matched. Benson's playing was efficient
Although Hyperion made did not revive these recordings on CD (about a year
ago the Campion Cameo label issued a single-CD selection from them) its
commitment to the composer was in no doubt and Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Dame
Felicity Lott and Ann Murray all included Stanford pieces in mixed recitals.
Then in 1999 the same producer (Mark Brown) and engineer (Antony Howell,
joined by Julian Millard), with Clifford Benson once again, set down the
first of a two-disc survey with Stephen Varcoe, who some time back recorded
the Bible Songs for Chandos. The presence of Jeremy Dibble ensured that the
choice of songs was made from a thorough knowledge of Stanford's work and
I am most grateful to have heard "The Tomb", the only printed song I had
never managed to track down and an impressive, large-scale piece. I am a
little puzzled at the preponderance of very early and very late works with
few from the middle years, but perhaps the reason for this will become evident
when the second volume is to hand.
Only five songs were also recorded by Griffett, and generally the new versions
have the advantage, particularly in the folksong settings "My love's an Arbutus"
and "Trottin' to the Fair". In the former Stanford's allegretto marking is
taken literally, the more flowing tempo showing that the earlier performance
attempted an epic scale which the piece could not bear. Conversely the Griffett
performance of "Trottin' to the Fair" (again marked allegretto) was very
swift indeed, with Benson cantering ahead at times (he does that here in
"The Sailor Man"); Varcoe's steadier tempo allows us to savour the piece
much more. "Heraclitus", "A Soft Day" and "The Bold Unbiddable Child" were
among Griffett's best performances and differences are less marked. It is
noticeable that Griffett's "Heraclitus" is better sung from the point of
view of breath support but that Varcoe is nevertheless more involving. Benson's
piano has much more bloom now but in the intervening years he has developed
the habit of splitting chords with irritating predictability.
I am an anomalous listener in the sense that for some twenty-five years I
have frequently played these songs and imagined them sung, and such performances
as I have heard have usually been by singers whom I have bullied into singing
them. In other words, my set ideas about them have gone unchecked and it
was hardly to be expected that this team would interpret them all "my" way.
I have done all I can to clear my mental decks but in some cases I still
hanker after something different. Just two examples: "Blue Wings" is surely
too static, lacking the youthful enthusiasm one expects of an op.1. And while
"Lookin' back" is a nostalgic piece it also has a surge of emotion
and a range of contrasting feelings without which it seems rather long and
rambling. Stanford's marking is Allegro moderato, but I hear only moderato
in this performance.
Varcoe has a notable reputation as a lieder singer and it is the early Heine
settings which provide the most consistently satisfying singing. I had thought
of them as more typically young man's music, more immediate in their responses,
but Varcoe's assuaging tones provide much pleasure. The rest is more problematic.
It is possible to sing lieder in a crooning head-voice, but the arching phrases
of "Denny's daughter" flounder when the same technique is applied to them
and there could be no stronger proof that these are not lieder
manqué. In Stanford's youth singing meant Italian singing;
opera at Covent Garden was in Italian no matter what the original language
was and singing teachers were, when possible, Italians who gave their pupils
a grounding in arie antiche and whose motto was "always support".
Sing these songs as you would a Bellini aria and you won't be far wrong.
Varcoe shows in "At Sea" that he knows about breath support; here the voice
is commendably steady. But he seems to look on this as an optional colour
rather than a base. Listen to the long Cs which pervade "Lookin' back". Some
are beautiful, some are husky, some begin huskily and then correct themselves.
This depends on whether the voice finds the right position or not. And these
are just Cs. Come the real high notes and in forte the vibrato flies loose
while in piano he mixes in about a lot of falsetto. Not a happy state of
Another factor has to be mentioned. Stanford's tendency to write for baritone
dates from his close association with Plunket Greene, basically from the
"Twelfth Night" songs (op.65) onwards. Before that his song-writing was
high-voice oriented. Of course it is standard practice to transpose songs
but this does have a cumulative effect and, just as the shallowness of Benson's
tone on the earlier discs may partly have been the result of playing many
of the songs higher than written, so here the fact that during the first
half of the programme Stanford's well-placed piano writing is heard a tone
or more down may account for a certain muddiness. The sound is notably more
luminous as "Denny's daughter" begins - at the original pitch. Nor has everything
been done to avoid this thickening of textures; the cascade of semiquavers
at the beginning of "Spring comes hither" is seriously over-pedalled for
Still, the magic of Stanford's song-writing largely comes across. I never
felt able to recommend the Griffett LPs but, warts and all, I hope this one
will be bought in sufficiently large quantities to persuade Hyperion that
2 volumes are not enough and to encourage exploration by other companies.
see also review by Gerald Fenech
Review of Volume 2