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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Bluebird, Op.119 No.3 (1910)
Beata quorum via, Op.38 No.3 (1890)
Songs of the Sea, Op.91 (1904)
No.1 Drake's Drum
No.2 Outward Bound
No.3 Devon, O Devon in Wind and Rain
No.4 Homeward Bound
No.5 The Old Superb
Te Deum laudamus
Magnificat
Nunc dimittis

Service in B flat, Op.10 (1902)
Magnificat (1904)
Nunc dimittis

Service in G, Op.81(1904)
O sing unto the Lord a new song (psalm 96)
O praise God in His holiness (psalm 150)
Agnus dei

The Fairy Lough, Op. 77 No. 2 (1900)
A Soft Day, Op. 140 No. 3 (1913)
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Thomas Allen (baritone), Timothy Byram-Wigfield (tenor), Timothy Barber (treble)
Choirs of King's and St John's Colleges, Cambridge
Frederick Stone (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
conds. George Guest/Edward Higginbottom/David Hill/Roger Norrington
Rec. BBC Studios, London 1952; Winchester Cathedral 1990; The Colosseum, Watford 1996; New College Chapel, Oxford 2000
The British Music Collection, Decca
DECCA 470 384-2 [62.07]
Midprice

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 practical constraint.

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).

Brief notes are provided in English, only. Decca need to be aware that the retaining lugs in their transparent trays break off in postal transit. The Styrene used is too brittle a plastic for this purpose and its useful transparency should not outweigh any lack of practicality.
Raymond Walker

see also review by Jonathan Woolf

Notes from a reader


While much appreciating the review by Raymond Walker of the Decca Stanford disc and thoroughly applauding his general conclusions, I note one or two errors of fact.

It's true that Stanford enthused over the production of English opera but he didn't write ten since, of his ten operas one, Lorenza, is in Italian. Perhaps the total is nine anyway, since only Act 1 of The Miner of Falun was completed.
It's a bit of a simplification to say he wrote 5 Church Services since, as well as the famous ones B flat, A, F, G and C there is a late unison one in D and some unison movements meant to be added to the Mag and Nunc on Gregorian tones to make a complete service. The disappointing quality of these works makes the matter purely academic.
An Irish Idyll was his first IRISH song cycle. His first song cycle goes back about thirty years - the Spanish Gypsy op. 1.
The comments about the B flat service with its treble solo and Fauré influence obviously refer to the G major. Is this another transcription error or are the tracks inverted in the booklet (I haven't got the record though I know almost all the performances on it)?
Regarding the alleged Fauré influence, I know it sounds like it, but can Mr. Walker prove that Stanford knew the Fauré Requiem? I know it was written about 20 years before the Stanford and published around the same time, but it was not performed in Britain till Nadia Boulanger conducted it in the 1930s. Since Stanford had an eye open for French novelties and conducted such works as Debussy's Le demoiselle élue and Bruneau's Requiem, I have always taken the fact that he never performed the Fauré (surely he would have enjoyed it?) as virtual proof that he didn't know it. I believe that the first British musician to promote Fauré was Elgar, but very late in life, long after the composition of Stanford in G.
Chris


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