This is an exciting release from Delphian
for a number of reasons: the quality of the sound, the singing
and the repertoire. However, it is this latter consideration that
is perhaps most important. The Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum
have chosen a number of works that are less well-known than those
presented on many other recordings of Stanford’s music. Most impressive
is the complete recording of the Bible Songs and Hymns
Op.113. As far as I am aware there is only one other CD version
of the complete work: Winchester Cathedral Choir on Hyperion
This is in many ways a radical work that blurs the distinction
between the concert hall and the cathedral. It is a masterpiece
that deserves to be better known.
The CD opens with the ‘Evening Service in G’ which was composed in 1902. It was Stanford’s fourth major setting of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer liturgy which included music for Morning and Evening Prayer and Communion. Jeremy Dibble notes that the entire Service contains much fine music, but suggests that it is the evening canticles that have best stood the test of time. Many years ago Edmund Fellowes gave a succinct overview of Stanford’s liturgical settings that holds good to this day: - “... [He] set up a new standard of design and character. His method in setting the canticles has been described as ‘symphonic’. This may be taken to mean that each canticle was designed in a more coherent manner than formerly ... Stanford welded his sections [of the canticles] into a whole, not only by means of well-designed successions of modulation and with a fine sense of proportion in planning his climaxes, but also in use of melodic figures or motives, which by their recurrence bind the work together and give it continuity.” Jeremy Dibble has further noted that Stanford adopts a lieder-orientated style that is entirely appropriate for the ‘songs’ of Mary and Simeon.
The key thing to understand about the Bible Songs and Hymns
is that it is quite a revolutionary work. Although the sound-world is very much a part of the Edwardian scene and owes little to ‘contemporary continental experimentation’ this work is both advanced and innovative. What Stanford has done is to fuse ‘secular’ and ‘liturgical’ formats in a single large-scale work. The ‘songs’ are taken from the biblical books of the Psalms
and is given to a soloist. Each ‘song’ is complemented by a ‘hymn’ from the great devotional literature of the church. These include the authors and sources John Milton, William Cowper, and the Scottish Psalter of 1650. More recent words are taken from Robert Bridges. These ‘hymns’ are re-pristinated and elaborated using the musical textures outlined and developed in the ‘song’. They are meant to comment theologically on the accompanying biblical text. The overall effect of this work is to present the listener with a profound examination of the Christian Life. The six songs examine themes of Freedom, Trust, Hope, Peace, Battle and Wisdom. Once again the dichotomy between the secular and the sacred is held in tension. Although the texts are fundamentally Christian, the treatment of the musical material is largely ambiguous – at least in the ‘songs’ which owe more to German lieder than the Anglican Church. It is only in the hymns that the ‘traditional’ message is presented in its glory. Stanford excels himself with the massive setting of Joachim Neander’s words Praise to the Lord
which well complements the Song of Battle
. The Bible Songs and Hymns
were composed in 1909-10.
Three short, but extremely satisfying anthems are presented on this CD. ‘The Crossing of the Bar’ (1890), set to Tennyson’s deeply moving poem ‘Sunset and evening star’ is a subtle contrast between the innocent sound of the boy treble soloist and the deeply felt text that considers matters of death and ‘the hereafter’. Stanford’s setting of the 23rd
psalm, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ is enormously attractive. In fact, Herbert Howells has described this anthem as ‘one of the supremely lovely anthems or all our history’. It was written in 1886, largely influenced by Brahms and composed in a near-symphonic and cyclic form that well matches the psalmist’s progression of thought.
The final work on this CD is Stanford’s setting of ‘For Lo I raise up’. It has never seemed to me that the biblical book of Habakkuk is a particularly good resource for composers. However, this ‘late’ work was composed in 1914 and cleverly uses the prophet’s words to provide an analogy to the horrors of the Great War. The judicious selection of words from Habakkuk allows for a positive and inspiring close to the anthem. The imagery of the eagles and horsemen rampaging through the landscape are juxtaposed with a message of hope –‘We shall not die’ and the promise that the ‘Earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord ...’ This to my ear is one of Stanford’s most moving works.
The liner-notes are by the music scholar and Stanford specialist Jeremy Dibble: they deserve to be carefully read. The performance is well-balanced, nuanced and totally sympathetic to Stanford’s achievement. Finally, the works chosen are a showcase for the talents of several boy trebles and other soloists all of whom are members of the choir. Laurence Kilsby who was the 2009 BBC ‘Chorister of the Year’ makes his solo debut on this disc.