This is a mid-price disc in Decca's much publicised
'British Music Collection'. The side-by-side listing of Kathleen Ferrier
with Thomas Allen shows that it draws together a number of recordings
from sources both old and new. It does not however give a balanced view
of the composer's output, but is more reflective of what has been available
over the years in the Decca catalogue. Consequently we cannot look to
this disc as a balanced historic document of the composer, Stanford.
Charles Villiers Stanford came from an Irish
lawyer family (Dublin born) and it is often to his native country that
he turned for collaborators, such as Antrim-born poet Moira O'Neill
(Irish Idyll) and Winifred Letts (A Soft Day). His Songs
of the Sea are dedicated to Harry Plunket Greene, a baritone- also
from Ireland. Stanford was quite gifted and won a Cambridge organ scholarship
(Queen's College) followed by a classical scholarship. Already a composer
of a variety of music by the time he was elected assistant conductor
of the University Musical Society in 1871, he was steeped in church
music. Two years after this appointment he became its principal conductor,
a post he was to hold for twenty years. Stanford was appointed organist
at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1874 (a post he held until his resignation
in 1892). A period of study took place at Leipzig (under Reinecke) and
Berlin (under Kiel) but to me this doesn't appear to have had a lasting
German influence on his compositions. As a teacher he was an influential
figure who taught a whole generation of students which included Arthur
Benjamin, Frank Bridge, Butterworth, Howells and Vaughan Williams.
Today he is best known for his church music, still
regularly used for Sunday worship in Britain. On this disc are good
examples of this genre which has stood the test of a hundred years of
use. He enthused over the promotion of English opera and wrote ten.
None were particularly successful either because they did not contain
the sumptuous melodies of the Italian school or because they just weren't
visual theatre. The Travelling Companion was moderately
successful yet there is no recording to date. A BBC broadcast of an
hour of excerpts from it took place as part of 'Emerald Isle' year in
1995. To provide a fair sample of Stanford the composer, the content
of this Decca CD needed to be wider. Nothing whatsoever appears to represent
his stage works. Of Stanford recordings available in the catalogue,
the majority are concerned with his church music and so perhaps this
disc can be regarded as fairly representative within that undeniably
While performances of Stanford's orchestral and instrumental
works are occasionally heard it is his vocal music which is generally
better-known. The Decca notes help us with useful background information:
There are five church services and the earliest is
the one in B flat. This dates from 1879 and quickly achieved widespread
use. The Te Deum laudamus forms part of the morning service
and was orchestrated in 1902, while the Magnificat and
Nunc dimittis form the evening service. All of the services
came to be widely regarded and acted as models of their kind. They brought
Stanford wide acclaim as an ecclesiastical composer. Of the other services,
that in G dates from 1904 and the Magnificat and Nunc
dimittis are heard here in the original version for voices and
organ (an orchestral version was made in 1907). It is a pity we cannot
hear what Stanford made of his orchestration as the orchestral form
is the least likely to be heard outside the recording studio.
The set of Three Motets, op.38, are among Stanford's
most popular works and were published in 1905. Composition of the first
two of these pieces dates back to 1888, while the six-voice Beata
quorum via was probably written around 1890. One
of the striking features of these works is the unashamedly diatonic
style of the music which is at the same time used with a high degree
of sophistication and refinement. These qualities are also strikingly
evident in what is surely one of the most popular part-songs written
by any composer. The Bluebird is a setting of a poem by
Mary Coleridge and dates from 1910.
Stanford wrote a vast number of solo songs throughout
his composing career. The Fairy Lough, taken from the
composer's first song cycle An Irish Idyll in Six Miniatures,
is a fine example. From a later cycle A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster
another of his beautiful vocal creations is A Soft Day.
His Songs of the Sea enjoyed strong popularity.
Piano scores sold particularly well over a wide period of time. The
songs were based on poems by Sir Henry Newbolt. It was the singer Plunket
Greene whose enthusiasm for the first two, Devon, O Devon in Wind
and Rain and Outward Bound, encouraged Stanford to request
further poems from Newbolt. The Old Superb followed and when
Plunket Greene requested even more the result was Drake's Drum
and Homeward Bound. The precise date of composition of each of
the songs is unclear. The order in which they are performed follows
the sequence in the autograph full score (as in the present recording).
A vocal score was also produced and dates from 1904, the year in which
the first performance was given by Harry Plunket Greene at the Leeds
Festival. In 1928 three of the songs were also included in the first
Promenade Concert broadcast by the BBC and conducted by Sir Henry Wood.
Thomas Allen provides an appropriately robust voice
for these raucous Songs of the Sea. His energetic delivery
of Devon, O Devon in Wind and Rain and The Old Superb
gives an appropriately urgent excitement to these pieces. In contrast,
Homeward Bound is sung with gentle wide phrasing and pleasing relaxed
tone. The forward bass and recessed strings give this cycle a heaviness
which is fitting for Drake's Drum but is less ideally suited
to some of the songs that follow.
Kathleen Ferrier continues to cast her magic and charm
over listeners after all these years. She soars effortlessly with grace
and imparts a sensitive understanding to the lyrics in these two short
songs. Her pieces (with piano accompaniment by Frederick Stone) are
taken from record rather than tape (though not stated in the notes).
The equalisation is excellent and although there is no surface noise
there are minor clicks to contend with.
The choral singing is of a high calibre as one might
expect from Cambridge's hallowed halls. The rounded tones and sensitivity
of balance between the voice sections is superb.
One is aware that elements of inspiration are drawn
from Fauré in the B flat Service's Magnificat, an early
Stanford composition. A slightly breathless and fragile young soloist
(tk11) gives this piece an air of purity and innocence in a composition
which owes much to Fauré's Sanctus (Requiem).