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Songs Vol. 1.
Stephen Varcoe: baritone, Clifford Benson: piano.
Hyperion CDA67123 78m DDD.
Crotchet  Amazon UK 

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 but unmagical.

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 affairs.

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 instance.

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.


Christopher Howell

see also review by Gerald Fenech

Review of Volume 2


Christopher Howell

Reviews from previous months

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