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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Morning Service in C, op. 115 (1909): Te Deum, Benedictus, Three Latin Motets, op. 38 (before 1891), Evening Service in C, op. 115 (1909), Communuin Service in C, op. 115 (1909) (including Kyrie in Latin arr. C.S. Phillips and C.E.S Littlejohn from op. 81 and Benedictus and Agnus Dei in F), Prelude in G major (not minor as given on the cover), op. 105/3 (1908), Evening Service in G, op. 81 (1902), Postlude in D minor, op. 105/6 (1908), For lo, I raise up, op. 145 (1914)
Choir of St. Johnís College, Cambridge/Christopher Robinson, with Christopher Whitton (organ)
Recorded 12th-13th July 2002 in St. Johnís College Chapel, Cambridge
NAXOS 8.555794 [71:09]

Back 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. Abbeyís long series "In Quires and Places Ö" was quite fruitful. Gradually a few brave souls in the 1970s ventured a half-disc and in 1977 Guild issued Maurice Bevanís 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 Kingís 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. Kingís College offer a good programme for those new to the repertoire while the Oxford disc has a few rarities.

Despite 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.

In view of Naxosís 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 Stanfordís 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 organistís 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 serviceís motto themes very cunningly, but too many opportunities have been lost elsewhere. David Hill (Hyperion CDA66965) takes 7í 22" over the Te Deum compared with Robinsonís 8í 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!

Not all of Robinsonís tempi are slower than those of other conductors. In the Magnificat he takes 5í09" against Hillís 5í 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 Stanfordís friend Sir Walter Alcock of the composerís "puzzlement that organists should think that Ďminim = 100í was intended rather than what he had written, Ďcrotchet = 100í." 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 Stanfordís tempo.

The 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. Robinsonís Benedictus is a little sticky and the piece flows better in the hands of Alan Thurlow and the Chichester Cathedral Choir (1í 32" against 1í 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).

At 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 Robinsonís performances and all, with the possible exception of the 1973 Saga, have better sound than the bottom-heavy Naxos. When Huntís 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 (Stanfordís 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 Marlowís 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 Parryís 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:

Hunt: 3í 02"

Hill: 3í 10"

Robinson 3í 21"

Marlow: 3í 48"

Bernard Roseís 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 Charles Wood.

Each of Stanfordís 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. Robinsonís treble is good, but Hillís Kenan Burrows has more body to his tone and is preferable. Robinsonís baritone sings well but with inflexible tone; Hillís 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! Rutterís 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 Rutterís disc does not include the Nunc Dimittis. A boy treble as full-toned as Hillís 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 Mendelssohnís Hear my Prayer. My desire to hear Simeon sung by a singer with professional experience would seem to be answered by Lumsdenís 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.

Naxosís 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. Whittonís 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.

Although this disc is called Anthems and Services it contains only one anthem, the terrific "For lo, I raise up", Stanfordís impassioned reaction to the war. Robinsonís deliberate tempo at the beginning ensures that the words are heard, but cannot compare with Hillís and Huntís 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 Huntís performance unsurpassed.

Incidentally, 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 Stanfordís finest works.

As 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 Hillís 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 Kingís College record except to say that the programme is a well-chosen one.

I am aware that the Naxos disc comes with a sticker proclaiming it a Gramophone "Editorís 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.

Christopher Howell

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