Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
From Songs of Farewell (1913-1916)
My soul, there is a country [3:15]
I know my soul hath power to know all things [2:02]
Never weather-beaten sail [2:58]
There is an old belief [3:26]
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners [6:11]
Jerusalem (1916) [2:36]
Dear Lord and Father of mankind (1888) [3:41]
I was glad (1911 version) [5:22]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Mass in G for Soli, Chorus, Orchestra and Organ, Op. 46 (1892) [36:08]
Nicholas O’NEILL (b. 1970)
Flyht (2013) [6:55]
Betty Makharinsky (soprano); Caitlin Goreing (contralto); Tom Castle (tenor); Will Dawes (bass); Tim Muggeridge (organ)
The Choir of Exeter College, Oxford
The Stapledon Sinfonia/George de Voil
rec. 9-11 January 2014, Keble College Chapel, Oxford. DDD
EM RECORDS EMRCD021 [72:34]
If you’re a regular attender at services in an Anglican church with a half-decent choir the chances are that you’ll be familiar with at least some of Stanford’s liturgical music, especially his various settings of the Morning and Evening Canticles … but a setting of the Mass? With orchestra?
Thanks to George de Voil and the Exeter College choir we can now discover an unjustly neglected but significant work by Stanford, which here receives its first recording. Unlike his major and very fine settings of the Requiem and the Stabat Mater, which are concert works, this Mass was explicitly designed for liturgical use.
We learn from the detailed notes by Jeremy Dibble, the leading published authority on Stanford – and on Parry, too – that the Mass was written between 1891 and 1892 as the result of a commission. The commission came from Thomas Wingham (1846-1893) who, since 1882, had been organist and choirmaster at the prominent London Roman Catholic church, the Brompton Oratory. Wingham had acquired a reputation for high musical standards at the Oratory and under his leadership it was far from uncommon for a Mass to be sung with orchestral accompaniment as part of the liturgy. One particularly important date in the calendar of the Oratory was 26 May, which is the feast of St. Philip Neri, the patron saint of Oratory churches all over the world. On Neri’s feast day a particularly festive and solemn Mass would be celebrated at Brompton Oratory, including the involvement of an orchestra. I’m not sure if Wingham commissioned Stanford’s Mass with the intention that it should be first performed on such an occasion but it was on 26 May 1893 that the Mass was first heard during the Mass for the patronal feast. Sadly, Wingham was dead by then; he had died suddenly two months before. Stanford himself conducted a further performance in London at a Bach Choir concert the following year but thereafter the work seems to have fallen into neglect.
Before considering the music we may ask why, when so much of Stanford’s liturgical music is regularly heard liturgically, the Mass should be so neglected. I suspect there are some practical reasons. I understand that only a couple of thousand copies of the Mass were sold in Stanford’s lifetime. As a comparison, Stainer’s Crucifixion (1887) had sold over 400,000 copies by 1918 and Stanford’s various Canticles, though not quite in that league as best-sellers, certainly sold much more readily than did the Mass. In addition I believe that only two sets of the orchestral parts exist and that performance with organ alone is difficult because although an organ reduction of the accompaniment exists it is far from easy to play. A further complication was the enactment of significant liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church instigated by Pope Pius X in 1903. These reforms promoted the use of all-male choirs in Catholic liturgy – Stanford’s setting is for a mixed choir - and, furthermore, the reforms promoted plainsong and polyphony at the expense of symphonic music such as Stanford’s Mass. I wonder also if the fact that Stanford was an Anglican was a factor: the work was not designed for the Anglican liturgy and one wonders if he made little attempt to promote the piece.
I’ve heard it suggested by people who have had more familiarity with the Mass than me that Stanford probably used the late Haydn Masses and possibly Beethoven’s C major setting as models. That seems entirely plausible. The Kyrie is described by Jeremy Dibble as a ‘pastoral larghetto’. The music is relaxed and serene and the lyrical woodwind lines reinforce the pastoral impression. It’s a charming movement. The start of the Gloria is much more exuberant with the orchestra brass well to the fore. There follows an attractive, more lyrical passage beginning at ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’, introduced by the bass soloist. After this central episode the music becomes lively again and the movement culminates in a vigorous fugue at ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ which leads to a festive conclusion.
The Credo is the most substantial movement, accounting for about one third of the work’s total duration. The opening is strong and confident – we must remember that Stanford was at the height of his powers at this time. ‘Et incarnatus est’, introduced by the soloists with good work from the soprano and tenor, is a more tranquil episode but the choir have more dramatic, even dark music at ‘Crucifixus’. ‘Et resurrexit’ is suitably exciting and much of what follows is ‘big’ music until the mood becomes more tranquil and reflective at ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’. Once again Stanford deploys the fugal formula as the end of the movement approaches and arguably the fugue is a bit conventional but the ‘Amen’ is very stirring.
The Sanctus opens with surprisingly sombre, minor-key music which Jeremy Dibble likens to a funeral march. However, there’s a more mystical note at ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ while the light-textured ‘Hosanna’ flows in long, easy lines. The Benedictus, which is led by the soloists, is attractive and gentle and, as in the Kyrie, Stanford’s use of woodwinds imparts a pastoral feel. At the ‘Hosanna’ Stanford revisits, in a revised form, the music that we first heard at this point in the Sanctus: and why not, since it’s so pleasing. The soloists lead off the Agnus Dei. Here the music is supplicatory, even austere, at first but a more relaxed, lyrical vein is tapped for the ‘Dona nobis pacem’.
Stanford’s Mass contains a good deal of very attractive, expertly crafted music. Having listened to it a few times I find it an enjoyable and convincing piece and its neglect is baffling, notwithstanding the practicalities I mentioned earlier. Happily, it now comes to us in a good and committed recording. I understand that the orchestra on this occasion numbered forty players and that to balance this band the choir was expanded from its usual size of 24 up to about 36 singers. Both choir and orchestra make a good showing. The organ part isn’t independent, rather it reinforces the orchestral textures and in this performance it’s well integrated. I think the scale of the forces probably reflects pretty accurately what one might expect to hear in a liturgical performance. The acoustic of Keble College Chapel is somewhat resonant when the full forces are deployed but still the engineers have achieved good results and you can hear plenty of detail. I suspect the soloists are members of the choir. They do a good job – the soprano has a pleasingly pure voice. However, these are fairly youthful voices and I think some tonal richness and vocal presence are lacking. It’s evident that George de Voil believes in the piece. I understand he first encountered the piece in 2010 while he was a student at the London Oratory School and it’s good that he’s had the chance to lead its first recording, which he does with some style.
Appropriately, most of the rest of the disc is devoted to music by Parry, Stanford’s great contemporary, who was an undergraduate at Exeter College (1867-70). The choir sing five of his wonderful Songs of Farewell. These are, in my opinion, some of the finest of all British choral pieces. The writing is masterly and Parry chose some magnificent texts to set, rich in valedictory imagery. The choir sings them very well, producing a fresh, pleasing sound. The part writing, which extends to seven parts by the time the fifth song is reached, is sung clearly – the choir is recorded a bit more closely than was possible in the Stanford Mass, though this closeness is by no means detrimental. My only concern with these performances is that George de Voil’s tempi are often on the swift side. Perhaps this stems from a desire to avoid thick textures – though I think his singers are sufficiently well-trained and proficient as to avoid that. Perhaps he wanted to impart urgency, as for example in phrases such as ‘O come quickly, glorious Lord’ in Never weather-beaten sail. Unfortunately, I feel that he doesn’t quite give the music enough time and space to let Parry’s glorious writing make its maximum effect. That tends to be the case in My soul, there is a country and, even more so, in Never weather-beaten sail where I don’t hear him observing properly Parry’s markings of rit or allargando. On the other hand There is an old belief is much more satisfactorily paced, the luxuriant lines at ‘Eternal be the sleep’ registering really well. The opening pages of At the round earth’s imagin’d corners are exciting and full of conviction. The choir does these marvellous songs very well.
It’s a great shame that the sixth song, the magnificent eight-part Lord, let me know mine end, has been omitted. I suppose there’s a precedent: the very first performance in 1916 included only the first five songs and the full set was not heard until the following year. However, it does seem a pity not to have the full set here. The last song takes about 11 minutes so there would have been room if Jerusalem and Dear Lord and Father of mankind had been sacrificed. Both are great tunes and they’re well sung here but were they really needed in this programme? I think not. I might have included I was glad in the dispensable category too, fine work though it is. However, it receives a splendid performance. Tim Muggeridge makes the Keble College chapel’s 2011 Tickell organ sound truly majestic in the stately introduction and the choir, singing sonorously, clearly relish the music – as they should.
The disc ends with music of our own time. Nicholas O’Neill’s Flyht (an Old English word, pronounced ‘flisht’) was commissioned to mark the 700th anniversary of the founding of Exeter College. It received its first performance at the beginning of April 2014 and I heard the Exeter choir give its second performance at a recital in the college chapel on 30 April. On that occasion I didn’t have access to the text – which is essential – and, though the piece was specifically designed for the chapel’s acoustic, I felt that the somewhat over-voiced chapel organ was too prominent. A much more satisfactory balance is achieved on this recording.
The piece sets words by Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), an alumnus of the college, and in the middle of the piece O’Neill has set words from two poems found in The Exeter Book, an 11th century collection of poetry that belonged to Leofric, Bishop of Exeter and which is now kept in that cathedral’s library. There’s a substantial, independent organ part which plays a particularly important role in the strongly rhythmic outer sections of the piece. Much of the central section, which sets the Old English lyrics, is in two- or four-part chordal harmony though the writing becomes more polyphonic before the setting reverts to Wesley’s words. The piece seems to be heading towards a celebratory, lively conclusion but right at the end the last line of Wesley’s poem is set to more subdued, thoughtful music, which makes for a satisfying conclusion. This is an interesting and inventive piece, well imagined both for choir and organ. My only concern is that the use of Old English, which requires specialist pronunciation, may inhibit other choirs from taking it up.
The presentation of this disc is very good with thorough documentation and good sound. Once again EM Records has done English music lovers a great service by revealing this substantial Stanford composition. I hope this recording will encourage others to perform it.