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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Magnificat op.164, Postlude in G minor op.101/2, For lo! I raise up op.145, Prelude in F op.101/1, O for a closer walk with God op.113a/6, Ye choirs of new Jerusalem op.123
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)

Songs of Farewell
Choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge/David Rowland, with Simon Jacobs (organ)
Recorded 12th-14th March 2004, Queen’s College Chapel, Cambridge
REGENT REGCD204 [67:29]

 

Parry and Stanford no more go together than Bruckner and Mahler, but at least Regent have had the bright idea of beginning the Stanford group with the Magnificat which the composer had hoped to dedicate to Parry as a peace offering after years of tiffing publicly and privately, and instead had to dedicate to his memory.

Even in the dark ages when it was hard to find anybody with a good word to say for these two composers, Parry’s "Songs of Farewell" were generally acknowledged to be masterpieces, worthy to stand in the company of the great choral motets from Tallis and Palestrina to Brahms and Bruckner. Stanford, too is well represented here. Possibly the two organ pieces belong to Stanford the fluent craftsman – though they are nonetheless welcome as part of a well-contrasted sequence – but all the choral pieces find the composer at his most inspired.

Anyone who has ever regretted that Klemperer never conducted a note of Stanford might feel honour satisfied by the performances here. I give the timings (including those of the organ works since Rowland and Jacobs seem of one mind in this), followed by those of some other recordings in or out of the catalogue.

 
Magnificat: 13:29 (Hill/Hyperion 10:09, Marlow/Conifer 11:34)
Op.101/2 2:14 (Dyke/Lamm 2:08)
For Lo! 8:20 (Hill 7:51, Hunt/Hyperion 8:29, Robinson/Naxos 7:24)
Op.101/1 4:02 (Dyke 3:28)
O for a closer 3:35 (Hill 3:31, Rutter/Collegium 3:18, Thurlow/Priory 3:14)
Ye choirs 5:26 (Hill 4:49, Hunt 5:08, Marlow 4:53)

Obviously, the most dramatic difference regards the Magnificat. Hill adopts a "baroque" approach to the opening pages. Fair enough when the music is plainly inspired by Bach’s unaccompanied Magnificat, but this is the "baroque" approach as we understand it today, not as Stanford himself is likely to have conducted the Bach piece (which he did on several occasions). Rowland’s more majestic (but not stodgy) performance more convincingly suggests Bach as filtered through the ears of a late-romantic composer. But the real difference comes in the slower sections. Here Rowland really takes his time, not just with slower tempi in themselves, but in the breathing space and the moulding he allows himself within these tempi. He also gives his singers space really to sing in an almost Italianate manner. Frankly, Hill sounds brisk and uncaring and for myself, I have now learnt, through this performance, to love a Stanford work which I had previously admired but not quite taken to my heart, and I can’t say fairer than that.

This big-boned, generous and majestic approach suits all the other Stanford pieces as well, without necessarily being the only valid one in every case (I still have a great affection for the Hunt record and hope Hyperion have not confined it to the vaults as superseded by the three-disc project under Hill) so Stanford can consider himself done proud. Only in the G minor organ piece did I feel the music spelt out a little too deliberately, though the registrations are more imaginative than Dyke’s, and as for the F major Jacobs has my sympathy. I have never felt happy playing the piece at the Allegretto Stanford asked for and this performance would seem to prove definitely that it sounds better at something like an Andante.

Oddly enough, when it comes to Parry Rowlands is faster than most others. Here are his timings together with three others:

 
  I II III IV V VI
Rowlands: 3:26 2:21 2:54 4:09 7:05 10:29
Halsey: 3:43 2:37 3:02 4:07 7:55 10:43
Marlow: 3:50 2:31 3:18 4:13 7:08 9:41
Robinson: 3:44 2:18 3:30 4:02 7:17 10:25

I have not reheard Halsey and Marlow on this occasion since the former’s Argo LP (with his Louis Halsey Singers) has never been transferred to CD (but it should be, and it also contains some Stanford partsongs which have never been recorded otherwise) and while Richard Marlow’s Conifer disc (with the Trinity College Choir, Cambridge) did make it to CD I understand the entire Conifer catalogue is in abeyance at present. So readers will mostly want to know how Rowland compares with Christopher Robinson’s Hyperion disc with the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, which is dedicated entirely to Parry.

Robinson is in one sense hors concours since he uses an all-male choir instead of a mixed one as do the others. As far as the sopranos go, when the females are young and trained to sing without a trace of vibrato the difference is not all that noticeable, but the difference between young girls in their lower register and Robinson’s maturer men in their upper register obviously gives quite another colouring to their line, especially when a fugal point is led by the altos. As regards the "authenticity" of one or the other, these were conceived as religious partsongs rather than church music as such, so possibly the mixed choir is what Parry had in mind.

However, having admired the Christ’s College choir in Stanford, I must say that over half an hour of unaccompanied writing I became rather conscious that, however well Rowland has worked with them, the actual vocal material at hand seems a bit more rough and ready than Robinson’s choir. Though intonation is good there are rather more slips in ensemble than one would like on a record. All this matters because, while Stanford’s writing has a lustrous sheen on it even in a second rate performance, Parry, like Brahms, is only beautiful when you make him so, which Robinson does, quite exquisitely. As the pieces become progressively more complicated I find in his version a distinction of phrasing, blend and voice-leading which leaves Rowland’s well-intentioned effort at the starting post. I was critical of Robinson’s recent Stanford CD (on Naxos) so it is nice to say that here he produces a really fine performance, indeed, from no.3 onwards I should say an inspired one which should be heard by all who care about great choral music and its performance.

So where does this leave the present disc? Personally, I am delighted to have it for the Magnificat, but that is the view of a "compleat Stanfordian". If only it had contained something new to the recorded repertoire (there is still plenty of Stanford unrecorded, some of it very fine indeed). For example, having sighted on the Parry connection with the Magnificat, the organist might have given us, in place of these two fairly well-known pieces, the late Fantasia which Stanford wrote on Parry’s "Intercessor" theme (and maybe preceded by the hymn itself). It is a fine and noble work and would, I should say, suit this organist well, and I am not aware of a previous recording of it.

Christopher Howell

 



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