RECORDING OF THE MONTH
I Was Glad - Sacred Music of Stanford and Parry
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A, Op. 12 (1880) [11:12]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918) I was glad (1911 version) [6:61]
STANFORD Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in G, Op. 81 (1902) [8:15]
PARRY ‘Coronation’ Te Deum in D (1911) [14:25]
STANFORD Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in B flat, Op. 10 (1879) [7:18]
PARRY Blest pair of Sirens (1887) [9:11]
STANFORD Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in C, Op. 115 (1909) [7:31]
PARRY (orch. Elgar) Jerusalem (1916) [3:03]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
Choir of The King’s Consort
The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. 20-22 September 2012, St. Jude’s Church, London NW11. DDD
English texts included
VIVAT 101 [67:52]
This CD is noteworthy in two respects even before it’s inserted into the player: it’s the one hundredth disc by Robert King and The King’s Consort. With it they launch their new label, Vivat, which will issue not only the ensemble’s future recordings but also CDs made by other artists. Once you’ve put the CD into your audio system and pressed ‘play’ it quickly becomes apparent that this release is noteworthy for many other reasons.
Throughout his career Robert King has been associated, at least on disc, with music of the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries. So it’s a slight surprise to find him turning his attention to music from the turn of the twentieth century. What is no surprise at all is to find that he approaches the music with the same scholarly thoroughness as if it were by, say, Vivaldi or Bach. So here, for example, we have all four of Stanford’s sets of Evening Canticles in the composer’s own rarely-heard orchestrations. We also get Parry’s celebrated coronation anthem, I was glad, but we hear it not in the original version, written for the 1902 Coronation of Edward VII, but in the version for the 1911 Coronation, which means we get extra “Vivats” – not just those for King George V but also those for his consort, Queen Mary. With the exception of Blest pair of Sirens, which is played in the Novello edition of c 1890, all the scores have been newly edited, either by King or by the leading expert on both composers, Prof. Jeremy Dibble, who also contributes an uncommonly interesting booklet note.
The scholarship has extended to the orchestral instruments also. For example, Crispian Steel Perkins has sourced six trumpets of the period. In fact, almost without exception the woodwind, brass and percussion instruments were made between 1880 and 1923. Many of the stringed instruments are considerably older than that. A list of all the instruments, including details of where and when they were made, is provided. The organ, too, is of the period. King has used the impressive 1892 ‘Father’ Willis organ in Hereford Cathedral but rather than dubbing this in later it was recorded simultaneously. Through some digital alchemy, its contribution, played live, was relayed to the church where all the other musicians were located and recorded with them; it sounds utterly convincing. The orchestra is fairly substantial: the strings number 8/6/5/5/3 with double woodwind and a full complement of the usual brass – though no less than six trumpets are deployed – thrillingly - for I was glad and the Parry Te Deum. I think it’s worth commenting on the forces in some detail not least because so much trouble has been taken to assemble them and to get the right – and authentic – sound. The one mild surprise is that King doesn’t divide his fiddles right and left. This band accompanies a choir of thirty-six singers (12/8/8/8) in which the alto section includes three male singers. The size of the choir seems small and I wondered how it would fare against the orchestra in the larger-scale Parry pieces but I found that the balance worked well.
It’s good to hear all four sets of Stanford’s Evening Canticles. These are staples of the Anglican Evensong repertory, and rightly so. Each set is tuneful, memorable and constitutes a very satisfying response to the texts in question. In the G major Magnificat Carolyn Sampson’s warm, cultured tone sounds luxuriant in comparison with the boy trebles that one is so accustomed to hearing but, of course, this is a very different style of performance and Miss Sampson’s singing gives enormous pleasure. And how wonderful to hear a harp rippling away in Stanford’s orchestration! The piece gets a delightful, airy performance though the rather grand doxology, in which brass, timpani and organ are prominent, seems a little out of keeping with what has gone before – that’s a comment on Stanford’s music, by the way, not on the performance. The Nunc dimittis also features luxury casting with David Wilson-Johnson as a firm and noble soloist. Happily, Stanford conceived a different and, to my ears, rather more appropriate doxology for this canticle.
The A major canticles were originally conceived for orchestral accompaniment; Stanford wrote them at the invitation of Sir John Stainer for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Inspired by the prospect of such a prestigious occasion and venue Stanford produced a vigorous and confident Magnificat. Jeremy Dibble points out the influence of Brahms and this is emphasised, I feel, by the orchestral writing. Much of the Nunc dimittis could have been written by Brahms himself and it’s noteworthy that Stanford repeats the first words of the canticle immediately before the doxology. The use of the double choir in the doxologies registers very well indeed in this performance. The B flat and C major canticles both contain much fine and imaginative music and they too are very well done by King and his musicians.
Turning to Parry, in two of the pieces this new disc comes into competition with Neeme Järvi’s recent Parry disc for Chandos (review review). Actually, in the case of Jerusalem the competition is not direct for Järvi opted for Parry’s own 1918 orchestration whereas King gives us the more celebrated – and opulent – orchestration made by Elgar four years later. I thought it was interesting to hear Parry’s own scoring, which is far from negligible but I’m afraid it sounds a bit penny-plain beside Elgar’s more imaginative creation. Once heard, for example, Elgar’s wonderful upward rush on the strings to illustrate the “arrows of desire” can’t be dislodged from the memory. One other point of interest in the Järvi recording is that, for good reasons explained by Jeremy Dibble in his note for that release, verse one was sung by a solo soprano with the choir joining in for verse two. King chooses to have all his sopranos sing verse one with the rest of the choir added for verse two. Is that a hybrid version he offers? I think it works slightly better. One other minor difference is that at the very end, for some reason that eludes me, Järvi gets his choir to sustain their final chord right through the short orchestral postlude. I dislike the effect. Happily, Robert King is completely orthodox about this detail.
The other point of competition with Järvi is the Te Deum in D. Järvi uses a full-sized modern symphony orchestra and a large choir. He’s also rather more spacious overall, taking 17:06 compared with King’s 14:25. I see that when reviewing the Järvi disc John France liked this piece rather more than did Nick Barnard. I wonder if Nick might revise his opinion were he to hear Robert King’s take on it. There’s a lot I like in Järvi’s treatment of the score but the lightness of touch that King achieves, both through the use of smaller forces and somewhat fleeter tempi is beneficial. So too is the greater clarity of texture in the King performance. Parry was able to write for six trumpets, since these were on hand for the coronation service but, in fact, his employment of them is fairly restrained; they do make their collective presence felt at the beginning and end, however, if not to the same extent as in I was glad. There’s a lot of good music in this Te Deum – and some that’s rather conventional, it must be admitted. I like the atmospheric use of a semi-chorus at ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth’ and also the lyrical section, introduced by an alto soloist, at ‘When Thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man’. Impressive too is the majestic writing at ‘Thou sittest at the right hand of God’. This setting isn’t Parry’s choral masterpiece – we’ll come to that in a minute – but it’s too good to languish in complete neglect. A recording is most welcome but two, especially when they are so contrasting, is doubly so.
As for Parry’s choral masterpiece, Blest pair of Sirens, well here we find King is similarly fleet of foot. He takes just over nine minutes to play this score. By contrast, Sir Adrian Boult took 10:55 in his 1966 LPO recording (EMI). That’s no longer available so far as I know and in any case, despite the authority of Sir Adrian the sound now shows its age and the London Philharmonic Choir’s singing is not up to today’s standards. David Hill, in a big-scale recording made in Winchester Cathedral, is pretty close to Boult in overall pacing, taking 10:45. Hill’s version is currently available from Australian Eloquence, ELQ 4762443. Hill’s is a completely different style of performance to King’s but the reason I mention it is because this is the one performance on King’s disc over which I have reservations. I greatly appreciate the clarity that King brings to the music – I’ve never before heard so much of the eight-part choral writing in the technically masterful closing section, ‘To live with him and sing in endless morn of light’. Furthermore, I think the fleet tempi that King adopts and the lithe textures mean that he conveys the enthusiasm, nay, the exaltation of Parry’s music – and Milton’s words. However, there’s a price to be paid. King is just a bit too swift; the performance sometimes sounds rather too light on its feet and he doesn’t seem to mould the phrases in the subtle way that Boult, for one, does. Compared with the Hill recording there’s a welcome freshness but some of the grandeur is missing. Though the Hereford Cathedral organ comes across well here - and elsewhere on the disc - the imposing sound of the Winchester organ towards the end of Hill’s performance, its pedals especially, adds an undeniable frisson. Both performances have considerable merits, however, and even though Hill’s moves me more I know I shall be returning to the King version also.
There are no reservations about I was glad. The trumpets are superb at the start and even though there may only be thirty-six of them, King’s singers make quite an impact. The performance achieves genuine grandeur – for instance at ‘Our feet shall stand in thy gates, O Jerusalem’. It’s a resplendent, noble performance, which I found very exciting.
This is a thrilling disc. Even if you look for more grandeur in Blest pair of Sirens I hope you’ll find Robert King’s approach to the piece refreshing – no Victorian cobwebs here! The performances are very good indeed. I did wonder about the use of such a small choir but the microphones assist the balance and I’ve no doubt that the softer tones of the period instruments facilitate a better balance anyway. The recorded sound produced by Adrian Peacock and David Hinitt reports the performances splendidly but I’m sure that it’s not just the expertise of the engineers that has produced so much clarity in these performances; much of that is down to the skill of the musicians allied to the use of period instruments. The documentation accompanying this release is comprehensive and most interesting.
There’s some marvellous music here by two composers whose output is still underrated in many quarters. The chosen pieces could scarcely be better served than here. This is a fine way for The King’s Consort to chalk up a century of discs and it’s a most auspicious launch for their new label. Indeed, it seems appropriate to say “Vivat, Vivat!”
An exciting disc. The music could scarcely be better served.
Without wishing to detract in any way from John Quinn's enthusiastic review of Robert King's disc "I was glad" on his new label - both the review and, by the sound of it, the performances, should win new admirers for both composers - can I just correct one point. John refers twice to thie disc containing "all four of Stanford's sets of the Evening Canticles". In fact, Stanford set the Evening Canticles nine times. That in F op.36 is, like those on the disc in B flat, A, G and C, the last part of a complete setting of the Morning, Communion and Evening Service. Also from a complete service is the very late (pub. 1923) setting in D. Of just the Evening Canticles there is the Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis on Gregorian Tones op.98 and two very early settings in F (1872) and E flat (1873). Some of these works have not been recorded at all to date.
However, the four on King's disc are the only ones which have an alternative orchestral accompaniment. I am not suggesting that all nine on one disc would not have amounted to overkill (and would not have left much space for anything else). However, maybe Robert King would consider a future disc, with organ accompaniment only, based around the other five settings, interspersed with more Parry?
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