Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
On Time, Op. 142 [5:40]
Heraclitus, Op. 110 [2:42]
To Chloris (c. 1873) [4:22]
Corydon, arise! Op. 49 [2:32]
The swallow, Op. 119 [1:39]
Praised be Diana, Op. 53 [2:36]
Like desert woods, Op. 53 [3:36]
To his flocks, Op. 49 [2:34]
On a hill there grows a flower, Op. 53 [2:33]
The blue bird, Op. 119 [3:19]
Shall we go dance? Op. 67 [1:22]
When Mary thro' the garden went, Op. 127 [3:15]
Diaphenia Op. 49 [2:07]
The haven, Op. 127 [3:24]
A lover's ditty, Op. 111 [2:24]
God and the Universe (1906) [4:44]
Peace, come away (1892) [3:17]
A dirge, Op. 110 [4:09]
Out in the windy West (1898) [4:50]
The witch, Op. 119 [3:23]
Farewell, my joy! Op. 119 [2:33]
The train, Op. 119 [1:43]
The inkbottle, Op. 119 [2:19]
Chillingham, Op. 119 [1:50]
My heart in thine, Op. 119 [2:25]
Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
rec. 2012 Church of St. Alban the Martyr, Highgate, Birmingham
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD 0128 [75:30]
Stanford and Parry were major influences on British music for almost half a century as talented composers, conductors, teachers and academics. Stanford served as Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music (RCM) for a remarkable four decades (1883-1923) and also as Professor of Music at Cambridge University for 37 years (1887-1924). At the RCM the best known of Stanford’s composition pupils included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss.
Although the prolific Stanford composed in many genres including nine operas and seven symphonies he is often described as the ‘Father of English Choral Music’. He is still principally remembered today for his contribution to sacred choral music. A remarkable writer for the voice he is frequently at his very best in his liturgical works. His settings of five masses together with canticles, hymns, anthems and services composed for the Anglican Church, are amongst the finest of their type and are still frequently performed in Anglican cathedrals around the world.
Responding to the rise of interest in Stanford’s music in recent decades Paul Spicer and his Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir have turned their attention to the partsongs. The present collection consists of 25 songs and Somm on their website claim nine première recordings but actually lists ten: Diaphenia; Corydon Arise; A Dirge; Peace Come Away; To Chloris; On a hill; Like Desert Woods; To his flocks, A lover's ditty and Praised be Diana.
I especially enjoyed the opening work: the complex and substantial On Time, Op. 142 to words by Milton. It’s full of contrast and interest. One of the Six Elizabethan pastorals set II, Op. 53 for chorus, Like desert woods is mournful in character yet affectionately tender. It features some especially lovely singing. I found the Mary Coleridge setting of The haven, Op. 127 a real masterpiece. It is beautiful and memorable with really appealing contrasting lines for men and women. There’s also a highly effective climax. This setting could be a tremendous success if used as a theme to a TV series. Director Paul Spicer tells me of his particular fondness for the scores On Time, Op. 142 and Heraclitus, Op. 110; an opinion it is hard to disagree with.
According to the authoritative booklet notes written by Stanford biographer Jeremy Dibble this is the first time on CD for the complete Eight Part-Songs, Op. 119. The blue bird formspart of that set together with The witch; Farewell, my joy!; The Train; My heart in thine; Chillingham; The swallow and The inkbottle. I don’t know of a more beautiful part-song than The blue bird. I’m sure that, like myself, many others will be familiar with the classic 2000 New College Chapel, Oxford account from Decca. It’s sung by the Choir of New College Oxford - with, I believe, treble soloist Max Jones - directed by Edward Higginbottom. The present performance of The blue bird is one of the finest I have heard with soaring soprano soloist Natalie Hyde in glorious voice.
Paul Spicer has prepared his Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir impeccably. The unity of the voices is beyond reproach, however, the weight of the woman’s voices does tend to rather dominate those of the men. The engineers are to be congratulated for providing satisfying sound which is clear and well balanced. It would have been helpful if the annotation on the rear cover had included the opus numbers for each part-song instead of just listing the song titles. In addition I would have preferred the Eight Part-Songs, Op. 119 to have been kept together.
There are some gems to discover here on this splendidly performed disc: indispensable listening for all lovers of British music.
Indispensable listening for all lovers of British music.
And a second review ...
If Stanford's name lives on at all in live performance today it must surely be through the medium of his church choral music. The reason for this must in no small way rest with the fact that he wrote eminently practical attractive music for voices that is grateful for both performer and audience. No real surprise then that the same values clearly apply to his secular part-songs. Indeed I am certain that at least a couple of the examples given here will have been performed by just about every amateur choir in the UK. What is more of a surprise, and thereby increases the interest and value of this disc, is how few of these part-songs have been preserved in recordings - according to the Stanford Society website this is the first recording that has been devoted exclusively to Stanford's work in the genre.
Overall, I would say this is a very valuable disc but not one without some minor flaws. The Birmingham Conservatoire are lucky indeed to have a choral trainer of the stature of Paul Spicer at the helm of their Chamber Choir. This is not that ensemble's first release - there are similar collections featuring Ireland and Delius, Leighton and MacMillan and an anthology entitled "To Music". Lucky too the members of the choir who get to experience professional standard recording while still training. While good, it has to be said that the choir is not exceptional. Balance in some of the pieces can be an issue - I'm thinking of an overly enthusiastic baritone sticking out detrimentally in the opening (very fine) On Time - and some general untidiness of attack that I am surprised slipped past the producer. Curiously, for what one assumes is a generally 'young' choir the sopranos do not always sound as fresh voiced as one might expect. However, intonation is secure and clearly these are detailed and well-prepared performances. My other gripes - which I might as well mention and get out of the way is the presentation and the liner. The latter is written by Stanford expert Jeremy Dibble but it seems to presume a certain amount of prior knowledge. Nowhere are given the opus numbers or numbers of the songs. This deprives the listener of being able to place the music in any kind of historical context - either of its composer or the wider musical sphere. Worth noting though that the liner does include full texts/authors albeit in English only.
Most of the collection are taken from larger sets with the important exception of being given all eight songs from the Op.119 settings of Mary Coleridge. The liner does allude to the sets/opus numbers but in a far from clear manner. Personally - and CD programming does allow me this indulgence - I prefer to hear songs grouped as intended by the composer. That way we hear the relationship of song to song as originally planned. I assume there will have been some rationale behind the recital ordering as given here but I would have like it explained. Otherwise it seems simply odd to have the superb Op.119s closing the programme except for two - including Stanford's most famous single partsong The Bluebird - plopped elsewhere.
In fact the positives far outweigh the griping negatives. At their considerable best there is stunning and powerfully effective music here. Already mentioned is the striking setting of Milton's On Time which opens the disc. The engineering skilfully emphasises the antiphonal writing which the Birmingham singers dispatch with real gusto. Aside from the Bluebird comparative versions don't exactly abound but this song is present on an older mixed composer/recital from the Ionian Singers under Timothy Salter. In every respect the new disc is to be preferred although the Coleridge-Taylor partsongs performed by the Ionian singers are well worth a listen. One of Stanford's very earliest compositions - To Chloris - is quite charming and shows the real craftsmanship of the composer even at a young age. The faux-Elizabethan settings interest me less - again the sheer compositional skill is without doubt but there is a nagging sense that this is exactly the kind of Institutional "niceness" that Elgar was rebelling against. If you compare say Moeran’s - much later - Songs of Springtime to these sets of Elizabethan Pastorals the former exhibit a clear influence of the 16th century model while clothing them in something of its own time too. Stanford’s settings do not seem sure if they are trying to be ‘just’ pastiche or something greater, beautiful and accomplished though they are.
Just when the "fa-la-lahs" of Shall we go dance start to grind, along comes an extraordinary masterpiece - The Haven. I apologise in advance if this setting of Mary Coleridge (not part of the Op.119 set, mind) is known to choristers far and wide. It was new to me. I would go so far as saying it is worth the price of the disc for this work alone. Jeremy Dibble's liner gives the music in chronological rather than performance order which implies this is a late-ish work written somewhere between 1912 and 1914. The chord progressions are quite unlike any other Stanford and anticipate those glorious modal movements in Vaughan Williams' marvellous unaccompanied choral works. At one fell swoop Stanford moves from being a highly competent writer of emotionally limited but technically polished partsongs into being a writer of searching brilliance. The choir sound inspired too, giving one of the most focused, concentrated and compelling performances on the disc. Indeed, I would say the calibre of the music increases with the opus numbers. Parry's Songs of Farewell remain for me the finest of all partsongs from this period by any British composer but The Haven is a must-hear work for anyone interested in the genre. What we are offered from the Op.110 set - Heraclitus and A dirge - are especially fine too and I would love to hear the remaining songs. Likewise the Op.97 Songs of Faith would seem to demand attention if the single representation here - God and the Universe - is anything to go by.
I was slightly underwhelmed by the Birmingham performance of the ubiquitous Bluebird. Once or twice Spicer can seem slightly fussy with self-conscious word painting. Yes, there are dots over the notes of "be-low the hill" but I am sure Stanford wanted clear articulation rather than the staccatissimo effect Spicer opts for. Compare with the famous version from John Rutter and his similarly youthful Cambridge Singers on his famous "There is Sweet Music" compilation on Collegium. Rutter wholly ignores Stanford's dots and prefers a languorous summer-drenched legato - it might not be what the composer wrote but, by golly, it's glorious. Rutter is blessed with far finer sopranos too - the high solo E flat on the word "blue" another moment of inspired genius. Spicer's soprano sounds simply plain instead of pure.
Paul Arden-Taylor's engineering makes use of the generous acoustic of St Alban the Martyr in Birmingham to set the choir pleasantly back into the church with the resonance supporting the choir without blurring diction or internal balances. As I mentioned earlier, this is good if not exceptional choral singing but then this is a choir of young singers learning their trade. In the past I have not been overwhelmed by much of Stanford's music, too often finding solid craft in the place of the spark of genius. However, there is enough music of real calibre here to make me hope that Somm will wish to return to this repertoire and extend or even complete this survey.
There is enough music of real calibre here.
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