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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Songs Of Old Ireland - Irish folksongs arranged by Charles Villiers Stanford: adapted for flute and piano
Gilberto Fornito (flute, piccolo); Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 12 December 2009, 20 March 2010, Studio ‘L’Eremita’ Lessona, Italy. DDD
SHEVA SH031 [64:08]

Experience Classicsonline


1. The return from Fingal [2:44]
2. Sweet Isle (Air: O’Connor’s Lament) [2:47]
3. Our Iniskilling Boy (Air: The Irish Lad’s a jolly Boy) [1:31]
4. The Falling Star (Air: Caoine) [4:10]
5. I heard ’mid oak-trees olden [2:04]
6. Remember the Glories of Brien the Brave (Air: Molly McAlpin) [2:13]
7. The Song of Fionnuala (Air: Arrah, my dear Eveleen) [3:39]
8. Let Erin remember the days of old (Air: The Little Red Fox) [2:21]
9. ’Tis the last rose of summer (Air: The Groves of Blarney) [4:17]
10. The Heroes of the Sea (Air: Street Ballad) [1:14]
11. The Leafy Cool-kellure (Air: The White-breasted Boy) [2:20]
12. The Alarm (Air: Leatherbags Donnell) [1:12]
13. The Melody of the Harp (Air: The Melody of the Harp) [2:59]
14. As a beam o’er the face of the waters (Air: The Young Man’s Dream) [2:50]
15. The Irish Reel [1:20]
16. My Love’s an arbutus [2:44]
17. ’Tis I can weave Woollen and Linen [1:35]
18. An Irish Lullaby [4:09]
19. The Meeting of the Waters (Air: The Old Head of Dennis) [2:02]
20. How dear to me the hour (Air: The Twisting of the Rope) [3:45]
21. The wine-cup is circling (Air: Michael Hoy) [1:49]
22. It is not the tear (Air: The Sixpence) [3:08]
23. Marching to Candahar [1:09]
24. Eva Toole [1:38]
25. The Irish Lover (The Londonderry Air) [3:03]

 
Personally, I have a number of hang-ups with this new release from Sheva. But before the reader assumes that I am somehow disparaging this disc, please read on! It must be understood that my ‘problems’ are generic and have little to do with the playing or production of this CD.
 
Firstly, I have to ask myself, why? Why was it that these two artists decided to ‘transcribe’ the ‘Songs of Old Ireland’ for flute and piano? What is the added value of the woodwind player? The entire recital is derived from a number of volumes of Irish folksongs arranged by Charles Villiers Stanford for singer and piano. These include the Fifty Songs of Old Ireland (1882), Irish Songs and Ballads (1893), The Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore, restored and arranged, Op.60 (1894), Fifty Songs of Erin, Op. 56 (1900) and the late Six Irish Folksongs (1924). There are two main strands in these settings - the melodies by Thomas Moore and the ‘parodies’ by Alfred Perceval Graves. Christopher Howell suggests in his liner-notes that the main problem with many of these songs is the outmoded lyrics: they are no longer a match for the timeless music. So, I guess the raison d’être of this CD was to protect the beautiful tunes from the less than excellent texts.
 
Secondly, I find the unremitting sound of flute (or piccolo) and piano for over an hour way too much! Pleasant, moving and memorable as many of these melodies are, they all blend into one long ‘fantasia of sound’ if not taken a tune (or a group of tunes) at a time. Furthermore, I would rather that the producer had ordered these songs by volume and date, rather than by some other more capricious manner. Moreover, I would have loved a few piano-only pieces interspersed amongst these 25 songs just to relieve the texture. As it is, I suggest that listeners adopt a strategy of making selective use of the ‘programmer’ or the ‘on and off’ switch!
 
Finally, I am left wondering about the potential market for this CD. I guess that the performers would insist that they were preserving and perpetuating what they regard as some of finest examples of Irish Minstrelsy and a fair number of the most beautiful tunes in the world. Secondly, they would argue that, because the words to these songs are ‘past their sell-by date’ it is better to rehearse them in the present arrangements rather than maintain an outmoded lyric. They may well insist that by presenting these songs in this manner they are bequeathing these tunes to a generation who would despise or even laugh at the verse of Thomas Moore and find the lyrics of Graves a ‘grave’ embarrassment. Maybe they hope to appeal to a group of listeners who would not normally buy a CD of music by Stanford, but love some of these Irish songs. In all these three arguments they no doubt have right on their side. Yet, I am still not totally convinced ...
 
From another point of view, I wondered if a transcription of the songs for solo piano would have been more effective: Franz Liszt took many of Franz Schubert’s songs and re-presented them for solo piano. This procedure, worked well, but I believe that this was a rare example of successful song transcription. In fact, it most definitely would not have worked with these Songs of Ireland for one critical reason: Stanford’s piano accompaniments are near perfect complements to the melodies and the words. The simplicity of the originals would have been lost in a blaze of virtuosity. One does not need to be reminded of Victorian fantasias for piano written on tunes like Home, Sweet Home or the The Bells of Aberdovey to realise the dangers inherent in this approach. So this is not a path open to Stanford enthusiasts.
 
So what is required? Firstly there is a need for a definitive and complete edition of Stanford’s ‘Songs of Old Ireland’. This would be quite a large undertaking with three or four CDs of material which would be analogous to the editions of Benjamin Britten’s folksongs. These songs should be sung as composed, in spite of the perceived shortcomings of the texts. This would probably be a one-off project: more a labour of love than a viable commercial success. Yet it would be a major contribution to Stanfordian scholarship and would be preserved for all time by the availability of the MP3s.
 
Meanwhile, Christopher Howell and Gilberto Fornito have given interested listeners a selection of 25 songs re-presented for flute and piano. They are enthusiastically and sympathetically played, in spite of one or two problems with intonation. The programme notes are excellently written and provide an apologia for the process of transcription. The sound quality is good, with a typically excellent balance between flute and piano. This is a specialised CD that will not appeal to all Stanford aficionados. If, like me, they are musical purists (snobs?), it will be very difficult to allow this CD into the canon of his music. But if the listener is someone who loves the ‘Songs of Old Ireland’ and enjoys the combination of flute and piano, then this is an excellent disc that will satisfy and entertain.
 

John France
 

 


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