> There is Sweet Music: English Choral Songs 1890-1950 [JF]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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There is Sweet Music: English Choral Songs 1890-1950
Charles Villiers Stanford The Blue Bird; Quick we have but a second (arr.)
Frederick Delius: Two Unaccompanied part-songs
Edward Elgar: There is sweet music; My love dwelt in a Northern Land
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Three Shakespeare Songs
E.J. Moeran: The Sailor & young Nancy (arr.)
Percy Grainger: Brigg Fair (arr); Londonderry Air (arr.)
Edward T Chapman: The three ravens (arr.)
Gustav Holst: My sweetheart's like Venus (arr.)
Edward Bairstow: The oak and the ash (arr.)
Benjamin Britten: Five Flower Songs
The Cambridge Singers: directed by John Rutter
Recorded in the Great Hall of University College School, London, February 1986


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The very first piece on this excellent CD makes it special for me. It is my all time favourite piece of choral music - one of my 'Desert Island Discs' if ever there was one. It is The Blue Bird from the pen of Charles Villiers Stanford. Now there is still a residual school of thought that decries this composer's name. He is accused of being as 'dry as dust' (along with his near contemporary Hubert Parry). He is charged with being unoriginal - Brahms with an Irish accent and he is accused of lacking inspiration. Now any of these criticisms could be levelled at Stanford and also at many other composers. Much music - even by the 'greats' - does, often, lack sparkle and pizzazz. Not every composer breaks new ground and not every composition is free from derivation. It is a very different thing to use existing musical languages than to deliberately indulge in pastiche. As for inspiration, one cannot but recall the old adage about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Stanford compose a lot of music. Some of it is probably best left to the specialist; it was music of its time. However the more I hear of this great man's music the more I appreciate it. We have excellent recordings of the seven symphonies, the two piano concertos, the Requiem and many songs and choral pieces. All of these works reveal hidden depths and suggest that they may well be lost treasures. But no work by Stanford is, I believe, more perfect than his setting of Mary Coleridge's (1861-1907) verse the Blue Bird. I give the words here:-

The lake lay blue below the hill,

O'er it as I looked, there flew

Across the waters, cold and still,

A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,

The sky beneath me blue in blue

A moment, ’ere the bird had passed,

It caught its image as it flew.

Now the programme notes reckons this is second class verse. I suppose it does not attain the highest heights of English Poetry. But there is something compelling about these words. Perhaps some of the effect is explained by later imagery. The Americanism, if such it be, of being 'blue'. The wartime song so beloved of a generation, 'There'll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover', has perhaps tinged these words with a feeling that was not present in its original. So there is a creation of colour and effect in these words - it is a 'blue' study. I can never decide if it is warmth I feel on reading these words or a slight chill. A blue-sky possibly means a warm day but ice is also blue. And perhaps the lover's heart is chilled by his beloved passing over the blue seas into the blue yonder? Yet this poem is taken by Stanford and is turned into a glorious miniature - a perfect fusion of words and music. He creates an unbelievable atmosphere. No other piece of music has this feeling; this magic. There is a combination of coolness and warmth - of sunlight and cloud. Yet it was only one of six settings as part of his Op. 119; the other five are no longer well known. If this was the only work that we remembered Charles Villiers Stanford for, he would be well worth remembering. As it happens there are many other fine and inspired works to get to know. As an aside I suggest the wonderful Second Piano Concerto in C minor (a truly English Rach 2!) and the fine Songs of the Fleet. And then there is the delightful part-song on this CD 'Quick we have but a second'.

Now I have had my eulogy on The Blue Bird I must note that there is much other fine music on this excellent CD. In fact it makes a good introduction to the English Choral Tradition - an excellent sampler of all that is best in a genre excelled at in the United Kingdom.

There are original works here and of course a number of arrangements of folk songs. Much of this music is within the ability of amateur choral societies. This was perhaps one of the driving forces of English Choral Music. The nineteenth century, in spite of many cynical views held even today, produced a great upsurge in musical interest. There were glee clubs, choral societies, and brass bands and much home-spun piano playing and solo singing. It was a time when there was a discovery of older repertoire but also a need for material that was largely 'popular.' Here we find the arrangements of songs like the Oak and the Ash and the Londonderry Air being given by composers like Edward Bairstow and Percy Grainger and being taken up by the amateur societies. And then who was Edward T Chapman?

Then there were the original works. Elgar contributed much to this genre including the works given here: There is Sweet Music and My love dwelt in a Northern Land. Perhaps they do not represent his finest achievement. They do not compare to Gerontius or the Cello Concerto. Yet they are creations which exhibit the care and craftsmanship, which were characteristics of his music.

The Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams were written for the amateur choral tradition. Vaughan Williams dedicated much of his career encouraging amateur music making. These songs are good examples of his choral style.

Of course Delius wrote for the choral medium as well. There are a number of recordings of his part-songs. However perhaps none have the sheer poetry and magic of the first of the Two Unaccompanied Part-songs. This is magical stuff.

Britten of course is renowned for his settings of English poetry. Not only original works but many folk-song settings as well. Britten did not write in the received cathedral or choral society style as such. Yet his Five Flower Songs are fine miniatures, which reveal the consummate skill and artistry of the composer. They were written as a Silver Wedding Anniversary present for two friends.

This is a good introduction to the English Choral Tradition. Although the music was recorded some fifteen years ago it is still fresh. Perhaps I would have liked a little more than 56 minutes worth of music. It seems a wee bit skimpy. Anyone who loves this kind of music can easily think of a dozen pieces that could have been recorded to give a bit more value.

John France

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