in the 1960s practically your only hope of hearing any Stanford
on record at all lay in picking up a few isolated extracts from
his service music on mixed recitals by church or cathedral choirs.
Abbey’s long series "In Quires and Places …" was quite
fruitful. Gradually a few brave souls in the 1970s ventured a
half-disc and in 1977 Guild issued Maurice Bevan’s classic performances
of the Bible Songs with Chorales. Not much noticed at the time
and long forgotten, this should be reissued since it remains superior
to the several versions issued subsequently. But the real revelation
that this was a rich and varied repertoire, of high musical as
well as ecclesiastical value, came from Hyperion (who else?),
who recorded a splendid disc in 1981 with the Worcester Cathedral
Choir under Donald Hunt. Since then Hyperion have issued a three-disc
survey by the Winchester Cathedral Choir conducted by David Hill,
with the repertoire carefully chosen by the leading Stanford scholar
Jeremy Dibble, and we have had from Priory and the Durham Cathedral
Choir what purports to be the "complete" service settings
but is nothing of the kind. The two discs present, complete, the
four best known services, in B flat, A, G and C; the F major service
remains unrecorded in its entirety, while the late D major service
for unison voices and the unison settings in G and A which combine
with the evening service on the 2nd and 3rd
tones to make a seventh complete service are wholly unrepresented
on disc. Imagine if someone announced the "complete"
symphonies of Sibelius or Prokofiev (or Stanford himself), but
in reality issued only four out of seven! Single discs, which
I have not heard, have been made by, among others, the King’s
College Choir under Stephen Cleobury (EMI CDC5 55535-2) and the
New College Choir, Oxford under Edward Higginbottom (CRD 3497).
Both of these had the bright idea of slipping an organ piece or
two into the programme. King’s College offer a good programme
for those new to the repertoire while the Oxford disc has a few
the continuing popularity of the music in church services and
its increasing currency on disc, I imagine the anticipated public
is essentially an English-speaking one, even though the finest
pieces can stand alongside religious pieces by other romantic
composers of the time. The Three Motets, being in Latin, would
probably stand the best chance of international appreciation.
Another obstacle could be the particular sound cultivated by English
cathedral choirs, which tends not to be liked elsewhere in Europe.
For those who feel that way certain recordings conducted by Richard
Marlow and John Rutter, using mixed choirs, might prove more enticing.
view of Naxos’s liking for complete cycles, it would have been
nice if they had buckled down to recording all this music complete,
but this is part of their English Choral Music series, where the
policy is one disc to each composer. The programme is centred
on an almost complete recording of the C major service; the Jubilate
is missing (at just over three minutes it could have been included)
and in place of Stanford’s brief Kyrie in English a Latin Kyrie
is given which is an arrangement by other hands of the Kyrie from
the G major service.. The dovetailing has been very neatly done
and it makes an attractive piece. The C major was the last of
the "big five" services; Stanford himself felt it was
his finest, and was surely right, for it combines an imposing
grandeur with a melodic simplicity which conceals an unfailing
harmonic resourcefulness. From the beginning it is clear that
Christopher Robinson is going to concentrate on the grandeur.
There is also a certain muddiness which may stem from the recording
but seems also attributable to the organist’s choice of registrations;
he seems to be using only 8 and 16 foot stops and one feels the
need for the instrument to ring out more. To be fair, at the end
of the Te Deum the motto theme blazes out sublimely over the choir
and at a certain point during the Nunc Dimittis the organist "solos
out" another of the service’s motto themes very cunningly,
but too many opportunities have been lost elsewhere. David Hill
(Hyperion CDA66965) takes 7’ 22" over the Te Deum compared
with Robinson’s 8’ 08" and there is an electric surge which
binds the music together while losing nothing of the grandeur.
Furthermore Hill gets a brighter recording with a more satisfactorily
full-blooded organ. However, it is the recording of the Te Deum
under John Rutter, with the Cambridge singers on a disc shared
between Stanford and Howells (Collegium COLCD 118), which really
shows the importance of the organ. At the same urgent tempo as
Hill (the timing is identical) the organist risks registrations
that some might find brazenly over the top and, frankly, the music
leaps into life. I loved it!
all of Robinson’s tempi are slower than those of other conductors.
In the Magnificat he takes 5’09" against Hill’s 5’ 28"
(Hyperion CDA66974), yet he seems slower for one remains aware
of four stolid beats in the bar whereas Hill gives the music more
lift. So, too, did Bernard Rose and the Magdalen College Choir,
Oxford, on a Saga LP issued in 1973, and even this fairly elderly
recording manages a better presence of the organ. Rose in 1973
was a man with a mission, for he had been told by Stanford’s friend
Sir Walter Alcock of the composer’s "puzzlement that organists
should think that ‘minim = 100’ was intended rather than what
he had written, ‘crotchet = 100’." This majestic performance
aroused some surprise at the time but seems to have made its point
since performances nowadays (including those of Robinson and Hill)
usually respect Stanford’s tempo.
Benedictus and Agnus Dei included in the Communion Service are
not actually part of op. 115, although they were written in the
same year. It was not originally the custom to include these texts
in the Anglican service and Stanford originally would have nothing
to do with such "popery". In 1909 he relented with this
setting in F and provided another in B flat the following year,
not specifically for use with the services in those keys but with
any of his services. Robinson’s Benedictus is a little sticky
and the piece flows better in the hands of Alan Thurlow and the
Chichester Cathedral Choir (1’ 32" against 1’ 47").
This latter record (Priory PRCD 312) gives the complete C major
Communion Service but is not especially recommendable unless you
wish to hear the Bible Songs sung by the boys in unison instead
of as solos (as intended).
the beginning of Justorum Animae, the first of the Latin Motets,
Stanford has marked a steep crescendo from piano to forte in just
one bar. Robinson practically ignores this (or have the engineers
levelled it out?). The various alternatives I listened to offer
a range of interpretative views but there is no precedent in any
of them for the general air of dolefulness present in Robinson’s
performances and all, with the possible exception of the 1973
Saga, have better sound than the bottom-heavy Naxos. When Hunt’s
record came out I found his tempi in the two slower motets disconcertingly
swift but over the years I have come to feel they offer an ideal
flow while losing nothing in beauty (Stanford’s markings are "Andante
moderato" for Justorum Animae and "Con moto tranquillo
ma non troppo lento" for Beati Quorum Via). Furthermore,
with his faster tempo Hunt is able to make a real change when
Stanford marks the final bars of Justorum "Adagio molto".
If you disagree, Richard Marlow’s long-drawn performances with
the (mixed) Trinity College Choir have a twilight glow to match
the Turner painting reproduced on the sleeve. (I have this 1987
recording on LP though a CD version certainly came out. It seems
not to be available now, which is a great pity since it contained
a magnificent complete performance of Parry’s Songs of Farewell).
Whereas some conductors use breaths to make expressive points,
Marlow uses staggered breathing to create long legato lines. A
happy medium is struck by Hill, whose performances are also very
fine. The differences are greatest in Justorum. The timings are:
Rose’s Saga LP also includes the Latin Motets and his choir has
a more passionate sound than is usual within the Anglican tradition.
He repeated his performance, with a few improvements, only three
years later for Argo. Both LPs had a second side dedicated to
of Stanford’s service settings has its own particular character.
While the organ in the C major is grandly supportive, the G major
represented an experiment in independent organ writing. In addition,
the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis take heed of the original position
of the texts in the Bible and has the Magnificat sung by a solo
treble, representing Mary at her spinning-wheel, illustrated by
a fluttering organ accompaniment, and a baritone soloist in the
Nunc Dimittis, since these words were originally pronounced in
the temple by Simeon. The problem here is that a level of solo
singing which might be acceptable at local evensong comes across
poorly on record, and when you hear the soloists on the Durham
version (of the complete service) you may long to have, say, Felicity
Lott and Thomas Allen brought in to give the music the artistry
it deserves. Robinson’s treble is good, but Hill’s Kenan Burrows
has more body to his tone and is preferable. Robinson’s baritone
sings well but with inflexible tone; Hill’s Donald Sweeney sounds
to be an older, more experienced artist. His tone is a little
wavery, but he offers the best Simeon of those I have heard. Marlow,
having a mixed choir, has a female Mary, but with such a pure,
straight tone I could have sworn she was a choirboy! Rutter’s
Caroline Ashton also avoids all trace of vibrato but sounds more
female if you prefer it that way. Marlow has a rather young and
reedy-sounding Simeon and Rutter’s disc does not include the Nunc
Dimittis. A boy treble as full-toned as Hill’s but with more ability
to modulate it artistically can be heard on an old Abbey LP by
the Choir of New College, Oxford under David Lumsden, issued in
1972. Dara Carroll was sufficiently admired to have made two solo
records for Abbey, and on this same disc he also sings Mendelssohn’s
Hear my Prayer. My desire to hear Simeon sung by a singer with
professional experience would seem to be answered by Lumsden’s
Frank Green, who had been a BBC stalwart since 1932. Unfortunately
40 years is a long time for a singer and he opens very unsteadily
indeed. A relic of what might once have been a glorious performance.
only identification for the first of the organ pieces is "Prelude
in G minor". At least the booklet notes get the key right,
but still no opus number. Whitton’s tempo seems more of an Andante
than the Lento Stanford asked for and the noble melody is not
allowed to breathe. Desmond Hunter, who gives the op. 105 pieces
as a filler to his 2-CD set of the complete organ sonatas (Priory
PRCD 445), takes a similar tempo but does allow more breathing
space within it. His organ (that of the Guildhall, Londonderry)
is recorded with more presence. On the other hand I find Hunter
too deliberate in the popular D minor Postlude which is better
done by Whitton.
this disc is called Anthems and Services it contains only one
anthem, the terrific "For lo, I raise up", Stanford’s
impassioned reaction to the war. Robinson’s deliberate tempo at
the beginning ensures that the words are heard, but cannot compare
with Hill’s and Hunt’s more vitally forward-moving versions. Hill,
by the way, takes the score literally in that he begins the section
"Art not Thou from everlasting" forte. There is in fact
no new dynamic marking and the previous section had finished fortissimo
with just a short diminuendo on the word "God". On the
other hand the mood has completely changed and Robinson and Hunt
evidently feel that Stanford or his printers omitted a piano marking.
The music sounds more beautiful this way, and allows for a steep
organ crescendo leading to the fortissimo outburst at "We
shall not die", which thereby obtains a colossal effect.
For this reason I find Hunt’s performance unsurpassed.
regarding the "omitted" piano marking, we should bear
in mind that this anthem was only published posthumously in 1939,
so Stanford did not have the opportunity to make corrections at
proof-reading stage. Incredible, by the way, that a work inspired
by the outbreak of one war should not have seen the light till
the outbreak of another. And yet it is generally recognised now
to be one of Stanford’s finest works.
you can see, I do not really recommend this disc, in spite of
the alluring price. It contains nothing that has not been done
better elsewhere. If only it had included one or two première
recordings (apart from the Kyrie arrangement) to delight the aficionados
I might have felt differently. Unrecorded Stanford anthems and
other church pieces remain numerous, most of them are good and
some are more than that. If you can stretch to three full-price
Hyperion CDs I think you will not regret buying Hill’s survey.
The Hunt offers an excellent single-disc introduction but seems
to have been withdrawn. If it were to return on Helios it would
be clearly recommendable. Unfortunately I cannot comment on the
King’s College record except to say that the programme is a well-chosen
am aware that the Naxos disc comes with a sticker proclaiming
it a Gramophone "Editor’s Choice", and that august journal
contains a glowing review by John Steane, for whose opinions I
normally have the greatest respect. I am also aware that Christopher
Robinson has had a long and distinguished career as a choral conductor.
But, having dedicated several hours to comparative listening,
I can only report what I hear.