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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852 - 1924)
Requiem, for SATB soloists, chorus and orchestra op. 63 (1896)
The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan - excerpts (1879)*
Peter Kerr (tenor)
Virginia Kerr (soprano)*
Nigel Leeson-Williams (bass)
Frances Lucey (soprano)
Colette McGahon (mezzo-soprano)
RTE Philharmonic Choir/Mark Duley
RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Adrian Leaper (Requiem)/Colman Pearce (Khorassan)
Recorded at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland, Feb, Sept 1994. DDD
NAXOS 8.555201-02 [59:34 + 44:55]


Previously released in 1997 on their Marco Polo sister label, Naxos have made available this premier recording of Stanford’s Requiem op. 63 at super budget price. Also included on this Naxos double-set are excerpts from Stanford’s first opera, The Veiled Prophet (of Khorassan).

Clearly the Dublin-born Stanford was attracted to England as the composer adopted England as his home country and there he spent the vast majority of his life. Owing to the number of prestigious appointments Stanford held and the many eminent awards he received the English music establishment was delighted to accommodate him.

Described as the ‘father of English Choral Music’ Stanford is principally remembered for his contribution to Anglican Church music. He is frequently at his very best in his liturgical works and his settings of the Canticles, Hymns, Anthems, Services and organ works composed for the Anglican Church are amongst the finest of their type and are still today frequently performed in Anglican Cathedrals around the world.

Stanford’s choral works for church services, almost symphonic in design and including substantial organ parts, resuscitated the English Choral Tradition that had become almost extinct. Subsequently Stanford was to write works specifically for the up-surge of amateur choirs born of the Industrial Revolution, who united together for large ‘festivals’. Stanford was a prolific composer of over thirty works for the genre of (soli), chorus and orchestra, both sacred and secular. These include the: Oratorio ‘The Three Holy Children’ op.22; ‘The Voyage of Maeldune’ op.34; Oratorio ‘Eden’ op.40; the Mass in G op.46; Stabat Mater op.96; Te Deum op.66 and the late Mass Via Victrix op.173.

Stanford composed his Requiem in 1896, in memory of his friend the esteemed painter Lord Frederick Leighton who had died earlier that year. Leighton, who had enormous stature by the last decade of the century, had strong musical skills and connections. Utilising a central text of the Roman Catholic Missa de profunctis (Mass for the Dead) the Requiem is a core work in Stanford’s output, blending his love of opera and song with his subtle skills as a symphonist. Conceived on a grand scale this is strong and vital writing and contains some extremely moving music. There are numerous episodes of spirited drama, as well as an abundance of striking lyrical passages. The use of individual accompanying instruments at various stages was considered both apt and original. Stanford makes considerable use of the four soloists, singly and in ensemble in vocal writing of Italianate eloquence. In some places the choral writing is of almost operatic sweep and elsewhere of song-like simplicity. Another feature of the score is the skilled, subtle and economic use of a small number of thematic cells.

The combined RTE forces offer a persuasive interpretation of this powerful and ambitious Requiem and are particularly convincing in interpreting the haunting atmosphere that pervades the score. Leaper is appropriately reverent throughout and ensures that this sacred work never drips with incense or exudes pity. The quartet of soloists have been skilfully selected and provide fine performances. Soprano Frances Lucey is fresh and radiant and the bass Nigel Leeson-Williams is rich and characterful. Tenor Peter Kerr displays a pleasing lyrical flow and the mezzo-soprano Colette McMahon has an expressive and attractive timbre. There are too many highlights to mention individually throughout the Requiem and I would just recommend the listener to sit back and enjoy.

Unable to fit the Requiem on a single disc this Naxos double release is rounded off with four attractive and substantial excerpts from Stanford’s first opera The Veiled Prophet (of Khorassan). Composed to a libretto by friend W. Barclay Squire after Thomas Moore’s oriental romance Lalla Rookh it is almost a mini Arabian Nights. In Lalla Rookh Stanford used a fashionable subject in keeping with the passion of the time for things exotic and oriental. The Veiled Prophet is a Romantic opera in three acts and contains dramatic and tragic moods. Incidentally I have been informed that the complete opera lasts for around three hours. Stanford completed the score in 1879 and the first performance was given in February 1881 at Hanover under Ernst Frank. The choir and orchestra this time under the baton of Colman Pearce are in fine form and I should single out the soprano Virginia Kerr for her rather excellent performance of Fatima’s Song of Happiness, ‘There’s a bower of Roses’.

The sound quality is one of the best that I have experienced on any disc this year. Stanford’s Requiem is strongly recommended and will prove to be a revelation for many. A superbly presented double set from Naxos that is difficult to find fault with.

Michael Cookson

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