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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Songs of the Fleet, op.117 for baritone, chorus and orchestra (1910)* [26:04]
The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet, op.24 for chorus and orchestra (1886) [25:17]
Songs of the Sea, op.91 for baritone, male chorus and orchestra (1904) [18:00]
Gerald Finley (baritone)*
BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
rec. 6-8 July 2005, Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales. DDD
CHANDOS CHSA 5043 SACD [69:37]


Any textbook on 19th century British music will tell you that Stanford’s "Revenge" once enjoyed a phenomenal success and was still going strong into the 1930s. Even in the darkest hours before dawn, the post-war years when no one had a good word to say for Stanford, Percy Young noted that "high schools still sing his ‘Revenge’." Apparently this was proof positive for Young that Stanford was a lousy composer!

As so often, we have a tale of two Stanfords. Jeremy Dibble, in his booklet notes, tells us that it "resulted from a commission from the Leeds Festival", while Paul Rodmell [Charles Villiers Stanford, Ashgate 2002, p.119] dwells on the fact that "unusually for this type of secular cantata, the work was not written to commission". It was, according to Rodmell – who quotes a plausible source – one of fourteen unsolicited works sent to Leeds and the only one accepted.

Sydney Grew [Our Favourite Musicians from Stanford to Holbrooke, Foulis 1922, p.30] tells us that Tennyson himself suggested that Stanford should set the poem. I have not seen this specifically stated elsewhere but Dibble relates that much of it was written at Tennyson’s home in Farringford in January 1886 so the poet certainly knew about the setting and approved of the idea. Later, while preparations were being made for the Leeds performance, Stanford wrote to Tennyson’s son Hallam: "The chorus is magnificent, also the band. You will never hear it anywhere else so splendidly done. Do try to come".

Here, too, we have a tale of two Stanfords, for later on he remembered it rather differently:

"The chorus trainer at Leeds, James Broughton, who had brought his singers to a high pitch of excellence, had become an invalid and retired. His successor was not built on the same lines … After the first performance of the ‘Revenge’, in which the chorus fell once or twice slightly and were not dead sure of their intonation, I met James B. in the lobby, who said, with tears in his eyes, ‘To think my children should lose pitch like that!’ I comforted him as much as I could by pointing out the passages in which they excelled, and the difficulties of getting four hundred singers to declaim a ballad written in an unfamiliar style" [Pages from an Unwritten Diary, Edward Arnold 1914, p.252].

Even the critical reception testified to the tale of two Stanfords for, while the Musical Times praised the work, declaring there was "a bright tone of British manhood in the music as well as in the words", the Monthly Musical Record [11/1886] complained that "the composer has done his best to overscore the work, and to make it as little like an English composition as possible".

This latter reaction, together with the choral problems, if true – a necessary proviso since Stanford had a somewhat creative memory and may have been mixing two episodes – show that the music was more modern in its context than it might seem today. While older practitioners such as Macfarren were still producing cantatas in separate movements in the manner of Handel, "The Revenge" was through-composed in a semi-Wagnerian fashion, with leitmotivs for the principal characters and thematic transformation in the style of Liszt as the events evolved. In short, what he had been doing on the smaller span of church music for several years, Stanford now applied to the larger canvas of the cantata.

It may seem surprising, given that this is one of the works always mentioned when Stanford is discussed, that a recording has not been made before now. After all, many of the pieces our great-grandparents loved – "The Bohemian Girl", "Maritana", "The Golden Legend", "Hiawatha" – have been re-examined and the Stanford discography is now reaching quite sizeable proportions. As a matter of fact, Chandos are advertising this as "the only available recording", with the implication that a previous one was made, but to my 99%-certain knowledge, none has been available for at least 40 years.

[Note: Consultation of the BL Sound Archive catalogue shows the existence of performances recorded in 1938 (incomplete, cond. W.K. Stanton), 1948 (cond. Charles Groves) and 1988 (Broadheath/Tucker). I presume the first two are broadcast performances, the latter a privately-made tape].

The answer may lie in a feeling that, just as Tennyson’s poem is not one of the works for which the 21st century honours his name, so this aspect of Stanford is not likely to be one which still has a contemporary message for us today. The Musical Times’s comment about "a bright tone of British manhood" sums up in a nutshell both what the Victorians valued in it and what might be less comfortable for us. It can be said that the music matches the poem perfectly; the themes are vivid and memorable, the construction is clear-cut, the orchestration full and colourful without heaviness. If the poem had to be set, this was the ideal way to do it. And yet there is a risk that today’s listener will hear it with an indulgent smile, thinking "so this is what are great-grandparents enjoyed", while other works by Stanford may still engage him emotionally. Of course, many passages can be enjoyed as abstract good music, ignoring the words, but others are more obviously stopping and starting to tell the story, so I don’t think listening just as music will be a fully satisfactory experience. Still, this is a recording that had to be made and anyone at all interested in British music of this period will want to make up his own mind.

The performance is a good one, possibly a little laid-back. Hickox simply sees that everything is clearly presented and lets the music speak for itself, which it is well able to do. The 1886 Leeds Festival Chorus had about four times the number of singers and their tenors could perhaps have charged Sir Richard Grenville’s defiant lines with more heroism. There is no great relish here of such splendid lines as "these inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain". The 21st century has learnt that a choir of 100-plus is at least four times too many for Handel and Bach. It may yet have to learn that it is about four times too small for Parry and Stanford.

Just one tiny point of interpretation emerges from Stanford’s own writings:

"Without being a musician, he [Tennyson] … was a great judge of musical declamation. As he expressed it himself, he disliked music which went up when it ought to go down, and went down when it ought to go up. … The most vivid instance I can recall was about a line in the ‘Revenge’ –

‘Was he devil or man? He was devil for aught they knew.’

When I played him my setting, the word ‘devil’ was set to a higher note in the question than it was in the answer; and the penultimate word ‘they’ was unaccented. He at once corrected me, saying that the second word ‘devil’ must be higher and stronger than the first, and the ‘they’ must be marked. He was perfectly right, and I altered it accordingly" [Studies and Memories, Constable 1908, p.93].

The accent which Stanford duly inserted over "they" is ignored here. Maybe if this extract had been read to the choir at rehearsal they would have known what they were supposed to be doing and why. A minute point but possibly symptomatic of an unwillingness to penetrate the music more than strictly necessary.

As so often, Stanford quickly provided a sequel – "The Battle of the Baltic", op.41 (1891). Just as Campbell’s poem never caught the public imagination in the same way as Tennyson’s, Stanford’s cantata setting of it did not achieve the popularity of the earlier one. Not all critics have judged it inferior, but that is something that can be discussed if and when a recording turns up. Stanford’s nautical vein hit the jackpot again in 1904 with "Songs of the Sea". These Newbolt settings were not originally planned as a cycle and two of the poems were written specially. Plunket Greene, Stanford’s friend, biographer and the first interpreter of these songs, tells the tale:

"They were not all the children of one birth. There were only two of them to start with – ‘Devon, O Devon’ and ‘Outward Bound’ – for solo voice and orchestra. When he showed them to me I cried out for more. We sat down and wrote to Newbolt. The result was ‘The Old Superb’. The moment Stanford saw it he said it must have a male chorus. I begged for still another two and suggested ‘Drake’s Drum’ … We both felt it wanted one more to be completed and the obvious fifth was the brother of ‘Outward Bound’. As usual, Newbolt produced the right thing on the spot and ‘Homeward Bound’, one of the loveliest sea-pictures ever painted, was the result" [Harry Plunket Greene: Charles Villiers Stanford, Edward Arnold 1935, p.134].

Plunket Greene, like Stanford, had a creative memory and Jeremy Dibble has pointed out that the dates in the score do not tally with this account [Jeremy Dibble: Charles Villiers Stanford, Man and Musician, Oxford 2002, p.359], though he adds that "it may be that the dates pertain only to their orchestration".

"Songs of the Sea" are no stranger to the gramophone. Back in 1929 Newbolt’s daughter and granddaughter played the poet a record of "Drake’s Drum" and "The Old Superb" and he wrote to his wife: "Too loud, of course, and the singer not a patch on Harry Greene; but I was quite overcome with admiration at old Charles Stanford’s genius … I wrote that Old Superb all in one piece and the next day he set it in one morning. Could one enjoy life more gloriously?" [quoted in Gerald Norris: Stanford, the Cambridge Jubilee and Tchaikovsky, David & Charles 1980, p.560].

Newbolt does not name the singer but it was presumably Peter Dawson, who recorded at least part of the cycle in 1928, and again – certainly complete this time – in 1933. Unfortunately I have the Dawson recordings on a World Record Club anthology issued in the days when it was quite normal to release historical material without dates, matrix numbers or even details of the accompanying orchestras and conductors. I presume these are the 1933 recordings and I understand that the original discs name the Leeds Festival Chorus and Orchestra while remaining silent about the conductor. Since Stanford himself was the conductor of the Leeds Festival at the time of the songs’ first performance, the discs may enshrine some memories of his own interpretations but, in view of Newbolt’s reservations, not too much should be read into them. The idea of having "Ship ahoy!" shouted rather than sung in the last verse of "The Old Superb", for example, is more likely to be an aberration that crept in later than an idea dating back to Stanford himself.

The post-Falklands War years were a good time to revive this sort of music and when EMI released Benjamin Luxon’s coupling of "Songs of the Sea" and "Songs of the Fleet", with Norman Del Mar conducting, there was a general feeling that the music still came up remarkably fresh. At about the same time Luxon sang "Songs of the Sea" at the Proms, with James Loughran, leading to their reinstatement there on a fairly regular basis. The recording by Sir Thomas Allen, in fact, was part of a CD (Decca, 1997) dedicated to "music traditionally performed at ‘The Last Night of the Proms’, conducted by Sir Roger Norrington. Incidentally, Luxon had made a previous recording, for Abbey, with piano accompaniment but with chorus. The songs were also included in one of Stephen Varcoe’s Hyperion CDs of Stanford songs, with piano accompaniment and no chorus. I felt this to be a waste of space that could have been given over to more unrecorded songs. Of the numerous incomplete versions, I would mention John Shirley-Quirk’s wonderfully fine performances of "Drake’s Drum" and "The Old Superb" (with piano and no chorus) on an old Saga LP.

Here are the timings of the complete versions with chorus and orchestra:
  Dawson Luxon Allen Finley

Drake’s Drum

2:34 3:12 2:51 3:12

Outward Bound

2:27 3:07 3:24 3:14

Devon, O Devon

1:52 1:41 1:51 1:44
Homeward Bound 4:14 6:43 6:18 6:41
The Old Superb 3:13 3:05 3:20 3:08


The timings may be a little approximate for Dawson and Luxon since I am working from LPs. For Allen and Finley I have given the timings as they appear in my computer. In the case of Allen the printed timings are considerably different while in the case of Finley they are identical except for a difference of two seconds in "The Old Superb". Maybe my computer is wrong, but at least the relative differences between the performances should be right.

It is well enough known that performances of slow movements have become increasingly long-drawn over the last century – see the obvious case of the Adagietto of Mahler 5 which has sometimes touched the exact double of Mahler’s own timing. But it is also known that performers were sometimes obliged to speed up to fit the music onto a 78 side. We shall never know if Dawson and company would have liked to take a little more time over "Homeward Bound" but we have to note that they were already at the outside limit for a single side. "Outward Bound" is equally swift and it crosses my mind that perhaps it was squeezed onto a side with "Devon, O Devon" to issue the cycle on just two discs. Even if this were so, however, the fact remains that he was under no such constraint with "Drake’s Drum" and still took it pretty swiftly.

In the days when I had only Dawson to listen to, these fast readings of the two slow songs seemed so insensitive they made me feel quite cross. Coming back to them I find "Outward Bound" the most seriously compromised, with the singer often getting ahead of the beat and the rests foreshortened.

Stanford’s marking for "Drake’s Drum" – Tempo di Marcia moderato – could embrace any of the alternatives offered here. I don’t find Dawson too brisk since he finds joy and confidence in the thought of the dead captain returning to "drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago". Shirley-Quirk was recognizably in the same tradition at 2:39 – though bear in mind that four bars are omitted at the end when there is no chorus. While a little more spacious, Allen and Norrington give the piece a perky strut and the conductor has the percussion well to the fore.

Though Luxon and Finley have identical timings the effect is quite different. Basically, Luxon and Del Mar present the usual interpretation, but in slow motion. The result is sometimes lugubrious. The music works when Drake is "dreaming all the time of Plymouth Hoe", but the "sailor lads a-dancing heel an’ toe" don’t get off the ground. Hickox, on the other hand, shows that this passage can still dance at a slower tempo.

Basically, Finley and Hickox present a different view of the music, with the dead captain evoked more distantly and an element of mysticism in the idea of his return. Hickox finds a sombre colour in Stanford’s orchestration which the others miss. Maybe the Norrington view would be better in a Proms context but I find Hickox equally valid. How interesting that such an apparently simple song can bear two very different interpretations.

If we discount Dawson’s "Outward Bound" entirely, the timing differences between the others don’t seem to translate to the actual result. All three give warm, heartfelt interpretations and I could be happy with any of them.

Norrington’s conducting of "Devon, O Devon" is surprisingly laid-back and Allen is similarly relaxed. Dawson finds a more manly vigour at about the same tempo. Del Mar throws caution to the winds with a sometimes ragged but thrilling display of sea foam. Hickox is thrilling in a completely different way, giving the quavers in the lower strings a Beethovenian tautness. I have concentrated on the conductors because they seem to account for the differences here.

Though swift, and often too loud, Dawson doesn’t actually sound hurried in "Homeward Bound" and he may have a point since Newbolt tells us that "swiftly the great ship glides" (my italics). Plunket Greene remarked, too, that "the battleship in ‘Homeward Bound’ moved on as surely to Dover as the ‘Old Superb’ to Trinidad. Steam or sail, thirty knots or five, they never stopped" [ibid. p.204, the italics are his].

Del Mar, I fear, goes to the opposite extreme, adopting a Barbirolli-conducts-Elgar style with a lot of point-making – at "the enchanted haze", for example – which sounds magical if you hear it once, but risks getting becalmed entirely. Norrington is just sufficiently faster for us to feel the ship gliding imperceptibly yet swiftly across a glassy sea. However, Hickox, while slower, manages to keep a feeling of motion. Norrington has the orchestral details sharply etched while Hickox creates a more impressionist haze. All three modern singers are extremely sensitive, so it is again the conductors who make the differences.

When the Luxon record came out, I tried to get my mother to enthuse over "The Old Superb". When I failed to do so I got out Peter Dawson. "That’s singing!" she said delightedly at the end. This was the sort of thing where Dawson excelled. Indeed, this sort of easy familiarity with words that trip easily of the tongue is something that has been largely lost. In spite of an orchestra that follows half a beat behind, the spirit of this recording has proved hard to match. Luxon seems to be making much more effort to achieve far less. His aspirates in phrases like "open’d wide and free" – rendered as "ope-hen’d wi-hide a-hand free" – are perhaps symptomatic of a technique better suited to other types of song. Del Mar is again a rough-and-tumble partner while Norrington sets off at another surprisingly staid pace. This enables Allen to manage his words but it isn’t very exciting. Plunket Greene recalled that at the first performance "… ‘The Old Superb’ taken at a break-neck pace whirled the audience off their feet" [ibid. p.134], something that Allen and Norrington would be unlikely to achieve. If there is a modern performance that recaptures the spirit of Dawson’s it is Finley’s. The words roll easily off his tongue in much the same way and at much the same pace – Dawson and company make a slight broadening for the last refrain which accounts for the longer timing. Hickox, too, keeps things light and lively without getting out of hand.

Plunket Greene has another interesting memory:

"I shall never forget the enthusiasm of the chorus, … nor the cheers when he [Stanford] told them they could sing the F and top B flat (not in the original score) at the finish of ‘The Old Superb’" [ibid., p.134].

This amendment never did get into the printed score, but chorus trainers with crack choirs might bear in mind that Stanford sanctioned these high notes. In the case of the BBC National Chorus of Wales, whose tenors make heavy weather of the high Gs in "The Revenge" and who do not attempt the (written) high A in "Devon, O Devon", a long-held B flat would probably not have been a very good idea.

In conclusion, it can be seen that, if I had to give my top two performances for each song, Finley would be there, ex-aequo, in every case, so that makes the new version a clear winner. Furthermore, taking the performances as a whole, while it could be felt that for Dawson this was basically light music, Hickox, with his unusually sombre "Drake’s Drum", has altered the balance of the cycle towards its more serious aspects. At this point even the two bright and lively songs take on a parenthetical air, with the serious ones there to say "look where this all ends!"

Perhaps this is not surprising. I doubt if Stanford had much importance for either Del Mar or Norrington. One of Hickox’s very first discs (1976) was an LP coupling on the long-forgotten Prelude label of partsongs by Parry and Stanford. The Richard Hickox Singers of the day included Stephen Varcoe and Paul Hillier among the basses and Penelope Walmsley-Clark to sing the solo in "The Blue Bird". Earlier still, Hickox was organ scholar at Cambridge for three years, so he would know all the regular Stanford church pieces from a tender age. More recently, of course, he conducted the Chandos recording of Stanford’s very fine Stabat Mater. So Stanford is part of his musical background.

If the sequel to "The Revenge", "The Battle of the Baltic", was largely judged a poor second, "Songs of the Fleet" did much better. It is true that "Drake’s Drum" and "The Old Superb" from the earlier cycle continued to be the favourites with musical amateurs around the country but many musicians, including Vaughan Williams, felt that "Songs of the Fleet" struck a deeper note. This time the cycle finished with a valedictory note rather than a lively one and at its heart is that extraordinary piece of tone-painting "The Middle Watch". A mixed chorus was used this time but a version with male chorus was also issued and Stanford’s use of a male quartet for his own recording may indicate that he preferred this. The two modern recordings opt for a mixed chorus.

A certain amount of mystery surrounds the Stanford recording (once issued on a Pearl LP). The precise date is not known, only that it was made in late 1923, by which time Stanford’s health had declined considerably and he had actually retired from conducting. The use of a quartet rather than a chorus was presumably dictated by the primitive recording conditions. Even as it is, the orchestra all but disappears when they enter. Another mystery is why Harry Plunket Greene, the first interpreter and Stanford’s friend of long standing, was not chosen as the singer. He was by then 58, it is true, but evidently far from played out since Newbolt heard him sing them in 1928 –

"like a noble ghost from some earlier period. … There was Charles Stanford’s ghost too and his music made me weep – the restrained wailing of ‘Farewell’ (writ so long before the War) and the marvellous beat of ‘The Little Admiral’, like 10,000 pulses in one and a thunderstorm over it all, and the sad courage of ‘Sailing at Dawn’." [letter to his wife, quoted in Norris, ibid. p.560].

Instead, Harold Williams was chosen, and gave an excellent performance.

I have not been able to ascertain whether Peter Dawson recorded this cycle complete. The WRC compilation containing "Songs of the Sea" also has "The Little Admiral" while a recording of "Fare Well" certainly exists. A further version was not set down until the Luxon/Del Mar, nor has there been another until now. The BL Sound Archive conserves a RFH performance given by Frederick Harvey and the LPO under Boult in 1955 "in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen". This could be of some interest.

Here are the timings of the three versions:

  Williams/Stanford Luxon/Del Mar Finley/Hickox

Sailing at Dawn

4:01 5:16 5:19
The Song of the Sou’Wester 3:14 2:52 3:12
The Middle Watch 6:52 6:32 7:42

The Little Admiral

3:37 3:16 3:41

Fare Well

3:44 (cut) 6:13 6:17


Once again, the Williams and the Luxon are approximate timings since I am working from LP and the Finley timings are those of my computer, which differ from the printed timings in two of the songs.

Discussion is likely to centre around the tempi for the first and last songs where Stanford – in spite of a cut in "Fare Well" – is considerably faster than the other two. The suspicion that this was forced on him becomes all the greater when we note that in the three middle songs, where space was not an issue – "The Middle Watch" was spread over two sides – he is consistently slower than Del Mar and fractionally slower than Hickox in one of them. Whereas Del Mar and Hickox seem to agree in painting a gentle, evanescent, dawn-grey tone picture in the first song, Stanford’s swinging march rhythm gives it another character entirely. Would a composer have accepted to change the character of his work when an alternative would have been to cut a verse and play the rest at a proper tempo?

While metronome markings are not provided for "Songs of the Sea", they are given – presumably by Stanford – for "Songs of the Fleet". That for "Sailing at Dawn is crotchet = 72. At the beginning Stanford is absolutely spot on. By the time the chorus enters he has settled into 80 which he pretty well holds to the end. Another time-saving device might be his ignoring of the "poco rit" at "infinitely desolate the shoreless sea below". Elsewhere he is fairly indulgent over such markings. From 72 to 80 is not a great leap so the conclusion would seem to be that Stanford probably went a little faster than he might have wished but not a great deal, and presumably did not feel he was actually distorting the nature of the music.

But in all truth, Del Mar and Hickox are no farther than Stanford from the prescribed tempo – only in the opposite direction. They both agree on crotchet = 66. I get the idea that both the swifter Stanford and the slightly sluggish modern performances are emphasizing one dimension of a piece that has two. Yes, there is fear and sadness in the music, but there is also the joy of being at sea again and I don’t find that in Del Mar and Hickox. It doesn’t help that the two choirs make little use of the opportunities given by the words for tone-painting. "Splendour of the past", sung with at least five Ss, should rise up like the first big salt-wave striking the bow of the ship. They might as well be singing about pretty flowers or even a "Kyrie eleison". My feeling is that crotchet = 72, as indicated, would capture the duality of the music, the "sad courage" of which Newbolt spoke.

Though agreed on tempo, Del Mar and Hickox are actually rather different. Del Mar allows Luxon a great deal of leeway in the solo sections – in fact, the metronome will tick to his performance only in the choral sections. Hickox is steadier, giving the music the feeling of a flowing prelude and perhaps retaining a little more of the spirit of Stanford’s own performance. Del Mar’s flexibility can be highly effective in Elgar or Delius but I often find with this imaginative conductor that flexibility applied where it does not belong quickly degenerates into flabbiness.

In "The Song of the Sou’Wester" Stanford is again spot on his marking of 112 to the dotted crotched. He is very precise over the articulation of the opening motive, digging into the three slurred notes and separating distinctly the last two quavers of the bar. By insisting on this he obtains – however dimly it can be heard in the recording and however it may be compromised by the woolly execution of the 1923 LSO – a suggestion of menacing, elemental power that I don’t find in the other two. Harold Williams, like Peter Dawson, is a master of letting the words trip off his tongue at speed. An interpretative point to be noted along the way is the slight broadening to point up the "’Twas in Trafalgar’s bay" quotation. I wonder if the modern baritones even know that this is an actual musical phrase from Braham’s (this is not a misprint for Brahms!) then-popular "Death of Nelson".

Luxon, with a faster tempo to contend with, again shows that this sort of high speed delivery is not his forte, adopting a barking manner that occasionally loses pitch. Del Mar cheerfully ignores both the metronome mark – he takes it at 120 – and the "non troppo" part of the "Allegro non troppo ma con fuoco" marking; in the choral sections he gets faster still. Heedless of matters such as articulation, the opening phrase cannot be heard properly at all. It’s all very exciting in a superficial sort of way.

With Hickox everything is clean and clear at exactly the marked tempo and Finley proves also here to have that ease with words characteristic of an earlier generation. What is lacking here is the "con fuoco". The idea is exactly right and the performance has to be preferred to Del Mar’s, but I wish Hickox had fired his forces a little more, as Stanford himself – insofar as we can hear – seems to have done.

Plunket Greene raises a strange point regarding "The Middle Watch":

"The Fleet Songs furnished us with a proof that Jove can sometimes nod. Stanford wrote ‘The Middle Watch’ in G, and trying it through at the piano there did not seem to be anything wrong with it; but when it came to the full rehearsal it was found to be a tone too high. It is a slow sostenuto, mostly soft throughout, and the tessitura was just that much too high, if the atmospheric ‘distance’ and the pitch were to be kept by soloist and chorus alike. The band parts had to be re-written in F against time" [ibid. p.145].

This sounds a bit too detailed to be wholly the product of creative memory, but what happened to the "band parts" in F, which should logically have replaced those in G in Stainer & Bell’s hire library? All three recordings are in G, including Stanford’s own, so "band parts" in G are what the publishers have consistently supplied over the years. Perhaps Plunket Greene just meant it was too high for his particular voice.

This time Stanford is considerably below his metronome mark of crotchet = 116, reducing it to 100. On the second side, though, he takes the solo verse somewhat faster, almost at 116, then settles back when the chorus enters. His male voice quartet sings at an unremitting forte, but under the acoustic conditions – just one horn to sing into, of which the soloist would have had the lion’s share – this was probably unavoidable.

Del Mar is pretty well spot on the metronome mark – though maintaining his characteristic flexibility. This is enough the change the character of the piece since it now sounds 2-in-a-bar rather than 6. This may be all to the good, but his choir makes no attempt to get below a mezzo piano and more often sings mezzo forte, supporting the idea that the tonality is actually too high. There is a fair sea swell and a certain passionate intensity to this performance which is attractive but, according to Stanford’s own example, not really what he wanted at all. Hickox is slowest of all – crotchet = 92. This is further still from what Stanford wrote but fairly close to what he actually did. Hickox is a choral trainer of long experience and he manages to coax a piano if not a pianissimo from the choir. For anything more ethereal than that, I daresay the lower key is needed.

If we try to fathom out Stanford’s intentions from the murk of the ancient recording, it seems clear that he wanted the pervasive triplet movement to sound very clear and even, almost inhumanly mechanical, like a star-spangled sky. This is then the unvarying backdrop to the choral and solo parts. Unfortunately, these triplets are scarcely audible once the quartet enters and his intentions can be sensed rather than heard. Very dimly, one gets the idea that something quite momentous is happening under his direction. The steadiness and the spaciousness create a sense of timelessness. Alas, it is a mangled fresco whose real qualities can be glimpsed only in rare moments.

Del Mar, we have seen, presents a wholly different view and can claim authority from the score for his tempo if not his dynamics. Hickox has a spaciousness and steadiness similar to Stanford’s. But incredibly, the persistent triplets are lost in the texture even more than they are in the 1923 recording! We get the immobility and the timelessness but we lose the inexorable movement. A near miss.

All three performances of "The Little Admiral" are as close to the marked minim = 96 as makes no difference, so the range of timings depend on what they do along the way. Stanford the racy Irish raconteur is well to the fore in his performance which is fairly free and shows that when he writes a rallentando or a meno mosso he means it. There is also an unmarked rallentando at "meet him at the great Armada game" which is so obviously effective that we should perhaps suppose it to have been omitted from the printed score by accident and therefore should be done. It isn’t in the other performances, of course. Altogether this performance is an object lesson in just how to interpret all the different changes of tempo, a lesson which was already being cheerfully ignored by Peter Dawson ten years later.

Yet again we admire Williams’s ease with the words and yet again this is the problem with Luxon who sometimes gives us another dose of ill-tuned barking. Combined with Del Mar’s tendency to hurry the tempo, the performance of the line "Keel to keel and gun to gun he’ll challenge us" does no credit to anybody involved. The unscripted top G at "a rubber of the old Long Bowls" was not a good idea. Superficially, the performance is exciting.

Hickox keeps things light, steady but dancing and Finley is so much at ease with the words as to sound positively relaxed. As with "The Song of the Sou’Wester", it is an excellent performance but I wish Hickox had asked that little bit more from everybody.

With "Fare Well" we have another tempo problem. In spite of a cut of 10 bars, Stanford is quite dramatically faster than his modern rivals. The perplexing thing is that the 78 side would have accommodated about another 20 seconds so he could have relaxed a little bit. Is it possible he really wanted it that way?

As in "Sailing at Dawn", the metronome is about halfway between Stanford and the other two. He marked it 60 to the crotchet, he begins at 66 and is soon moving forward at 72. At "To keep the house unharmed" he has indicated "poco più mosso" with a new marking of 72. Having already reached 72 he presses on to 80 and sometimes even more. He drops back to his original tempo as marked, but the real puzzle is at the end – "For evermore their life and thine are one". Here he has requested "Molto adagio" with a marking of 52. He actually speeds up to 80 with a grandstand finish at around 88.

Del Mar’s tempi are characteristically flexible here – to good effect in this context – but a tempo around 50 to the crotchet seems the norm. At "to keep the house unharmed" he forges ahead considerably at about 66, even verging on the written 72 at times. But this way the difference is far greater than requested. He returns to his original tempo, of course, and the final section is pretty close to the written 52. But Stanford wrote 52 on the assumption that the previous tempo was faster while Del Mar’s was slower. So he actually speeds up. But then, so did Stanford, even more.

Hickox also begins around 50, holding it more steadily – though not rigidly – than Del Mar. At "To keep the house unharmed" he makes only a small modification – crotchet = 60. Proportionally, this is about the increase Stanford asked for. And at the end he does actually manage to go slower still, as asked – about 48.

Since the differences are practically irreconcilable and alter the character of the music entirely, one is bound to ask if anything else in the score can help us. Well yes, there are the dynamics. At the beginning, against the orchestra’s piano, the choir sings its three "farewells" triple piano. Then the solo voice enters mezzo forte followed by a swelling crescendo on the first long note, accompanied by an orchestra marked piano. The baritone is not asked to modify his mezzo forte until "themselves they could not save", where he drops to piano. All this time the choir is continuing to interpolate its "farewells" triple piano and the orchestra continues piano. At "To keep the house unharmed" the soloist is asked to sing forte and the choir, in their one interpolation in this section, are allowed to enter piano but are asked to make an immediate diminuendo. When the original tempo returns the choir continues with its triple piano "farewells" but the soloist is not asked to modify his forte until after the choir’s swelling (from pianissimo) on the word "mother". Only then is he asked to drop to piano. Then the orchestra enter for the final denouement and everybody rises to fortissimo.

But what do the three performances actually do?

It is idle to expect a triple piano from Stanford’s male quartet though they do seem to be trying to sing a little quieter than usual. Williams’s dynamics are pretty much as written – he opts for a strong delivery.

A triple piano seems to be too much to ask of Del Mar’s Bournemouth choir, too. They are somewhere between piano and mezzo piano. And so is Luxon when he enters! In other words, the indicated difference is ironed out. Throughout the first section, Luxon offers a gentle, restrained and elegiac delivery. He is stronger at "To keep the house unharmed" and it could be argued that here – only here – this performance is the closest of the three to what is written. He returns to his elegiac tone at "Service is sweet" and soloist and chorus mingle at approximately the same dynamic level. The pianissimo choral cry of "mother" is mezzo forte or more.

Hickox gets something much closer to a real triple piano from his Welsh choir. But Finley is also much closer than Luxon to a triple piano when he enters. So again, the marked difference is ironed out. Finley continues his gentle piano even at "To keep the house unharmed" so the whole piece is given a hushed, elegiac tone until the triumphant end.

Are we any closer to understanding what Stanford wanted?

I think the two modern performances make the mistake of thinking that soloist and choir should mingle whereas they are at odds. In the far distance – as off-stage sounding as possible – the dead are repeating their farewells. But the soloist is not saying farewell with them, he is not lamenting the dead, he is exhorting the sea to hear the dead and to greet them, "because they died for thee". So only at the end, when the soloist sees, as if in a vision, that "For evermore their life and thine are one", do their differences become reconciled and everybody rises to a fortissimo together. Looked at this way, Stanford’s own performance, if a shade hasty, does not spiritually betray what he wanted. Luxon/Del Mar and Finley/Hickox give extremely beautiful performances after their lights, but their lights are demonstrably not Stanford’s.

Summing up, once again Hickox has emphasized the serious nature of the work as a whole by dwelling on the slower pieces and giving the faster ones a parenthetical quality. If I have raised a few doubts, he certainly gives the impression that he believes in Stanford, and the music responds accordingly. Del Mar came from a generation that got the giggles whenever Parry-and-Stanford were mentioned. He was probably somewhat bemused at being asked to conduct the music at all. I would like to think he has favourably impressed by the slower pieces but he seems to think he could afford to be facetious over the faster ones.

Even if Stanford’s own recording were currently available, you need to be a trained musician or a very experienced listener to disentangle from it what Stanford did, what he wanted, what he got, and what we can actually hear of it. While it was my only chance of hearing the music at all, this recording was a source of frustration more than anything and I have finally come to terms with it while preparing to write this review.

When I saw the programme of this disc I was a little concerned that those who have the Luxon recordings of the two song cycles may not wish to duplicate them for "The Revenge". However, I assure them that if they do they will get performances that are considerably different, and almost invariably for the better. For newcomers, the Finley/Hickox is a clear first choice whether you want "The Revenge" or not. Texts are provided and the notes are in three languages. If I began by querying a statement in Jeremy Dibble’s essay I should add that for the rest he provides a full and detailed introduction to the music. I have heard the recording as an ordinary CD and note that it has to be played at a higher volume level than usual but is otherwise excellent. I hope people will buy this in sufficient numbers to convince Chandos that it would be a good thing to go on and produce more.

In his own day Stanford was valued for his choral music above all. Since this is the most expensive sort of repertoire to record, more attention has been paid so far to his instrumental music. Generally it has proved worthwhile. If more choral works could be set down, which are the ones to go for?

Of the non-religious works, my first choices would be:

Elegiac Ode, op.21 (1884), a very impressive Whitman setting and surely one of the first, at least outside America.

Phaudrig Crohoore, op.62 (1895), a charming, racy Irish ballad

Last Post, op.75 (1900), a dignified and moving elegy

Merlin and the Gleam, op.172 (1919), a late work, full of poetry, but the full score was destroyed when the Stainer & Bell warehouse collapsed into the Wash. I have heard, though, that Jeremy Dibble is re-orchestrating it from the vocal score

and, just possibly, The Voyage of Maeldune, op.34 (1889), a large and perhaps sprawling work (it would fill a whole CD), but containing some strikingly beautiful passages.

Just a notch further down but definitely worth doing, are:

Cavalier Songs, op.17 (1880), a brief (three songs), rousing cycle for baritone, male chorus and orchestra which seems a blueprint for Songs of the Sea.

The Battle of the Baltic, op.41 (1891), the "sequel" to The Revenge

Fairy Day, op.131 (1912), three charming idylls for soprano, female chorus and small orchestra.

Of the religious works, now that we have the Requiem and the Stabat Mater, the most urgently needed are perhaps the Te Deum, op.66 (1897) and the Mass in G, op.46 (1892). Two shorter works, the bright and breezy O Praise the Lord of Heaven, op.27 (1887) and the grandly impressive Ave atque Vale, op.114 (1909) are worth bearing in mind.

So buy this disc and set things in motion!

Christopher Howell


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