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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Stabat Mater – Symphonic Cantata, Op. 96 (1906) [44:12]
Song to the Soul, Op. 97b (1913) [13:35]
The Resurrection, Op. 5 (1875) [12:30]
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano); Catherine Hopper (mezzo); Robert Murray (tenor); David Soar (bass)
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
rec. 21-22 November 2015, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK
Texts and English translation included
NAXOS 8.573512 [70:17]

Yet again lovers of British music have to thank the record industry for an opportunity to hear music that is rarely, if ever, heard in the concert hall. Stanford’s liturgical music still occupies a firm place in the repertoire of church choirs – and during his time at Winchester Cathedral David Hill made three excellent CDs of Stanford’s church music for Hyperion – but his secular music rarely seems to feature in live performances. Happily, we have much of his orchestral music and some of his chamber music on disc. This new Naxos disc is doubly valuable because not only does it offer us a second recording – praise be! – of the Stabat Mater but also what I strongly suspect are first recordings of two other choral-orchestral scores, from either end of the composer’s career.

The Stabat Mater has already received a fine recording. That was made in 1995 by Richard Hickox with soloists, the Leeds Philharmonic Choir and the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN 9548). It was the product of live performances given, very appropriately, in Leeds Town Hall, the very place where the work received its premiere in 1907. By a pleasing coincidence the Hickox performances were given almost exactly twenty years to the day before the sessions for David Hill’s new recording. I’ve owned the Hickox recording since it was first issued and admire it very much. The difference – and the similarities – between it and the new Naxos performance can be summed up fairly swiftly. Both conductors have a fine grasp of the score and both are very well served by their respective choirs and orchestras. Both recordings feature excellent solo quartets and if I have a slight preference for Hickox’s soprano, Ingrid Attrot, that may be because she’s not as forwardly recorded as is Elizabeth Cragg and, indeed, Hill’s other soloists. That brings us to the crucial difference between the two discs. Chandos recorded in the big acoustic of Leeds Town Hall. The performers are heard at something of a distance and we also hear rather more of the ambience of the hall. By contrast the Naxos sound is more vivid and rather more closely balanced. I rather like the concert-hall perspective of the Chandos sound but Naxos offers more impact.

It’s appropriate that this music is vividly recorded because it has two overriding features. One is that Stanford very deliberately described his Stabat Mater as a symphonic cantata. In this work he uses and develops musical material in symphonic fashion. Above all, he allocates the orchestra a crucially important role. The instruments offer far more than ‘mere’ accompaniment when the soloists or chorus are singing and, furthermore, Stanford gave two of the work’s five movements to the orchestra alone: a substantial Prelude and a shorter but no less important Intermezzo, which forms the third movement. The score plays for just over 44 minutes and these two orchestral movements account for 12:10 – over 25% - of its duration. The second overriding feature is the dramatic, indeed operatic nature of the music. Stanford was a committed opera composer: I think I’m correct in saying that he composed some ten operas, seven of which preceded the Stabat Mater. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he treated this emotive religious poem in a very dramatic fashion.

Stanford divides the 19 stanzas of the poem into three vocal sections – he omits all but one line of the stanza beginning ‘Eia mater, fons amoris’. The placing of the orchestral Intermezzo occurs at a very significant point in the poem. The preceding stanzas have all described the anguish of Mary at the foot of the cross; those which follow the Intermezzo constitute a prayer to Mary. Thus the Intermezzo almost acts as a pivot. Jeremy Dibble speculates in his notes that Stanford intended the orchestral movement to depict the death of Christ and the events immediately associated with it. Given the dramatic nature of the writing in the Intermezzo I’m sure he’s right.

The substantial orchestral Prelude begins quietly but very soon becomes blazingly dramatic. At 2:26 a generous theme is announced by the cellos; this will be important elsewhere in the score. David Hill brings out the turbulence in the Prelude before the music subsides prior to the beginning of the sung text. It’s the soprano who sings first and her music is sorrowful and also quite operatic in feel, as is the music which follows for the other soloists and the chorus. There’s a lovely, falling melody of no little poignancy for the chorus at ‘O quam tristis’ (track 2, 6:15) and Stanford brings this back in the orchestra (11:09) as the movement moves towards its subdued close. This movement combines noble grief and strong drama. The Intermezzo, to which I’ve already referred, might lead you by its title to expect something fairly lightweight in character. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is powerful, strongly expressed music.

The fourth movement is described by Jeremy Dibble as ‘analogous to a Scherzo’. I’m not sure I get that from the music though the tempo is a quick-ish Allegretto and the tone and texture of the music is somewhat lighter than what has gone before. However, the countenance of the writing is still serious. This movement is mainly for the soloists with some choral interjections. The lengthy finale has a big, triumphal opening, which is by no means inconsistent with the words ‘Virgo, virginum praeclarum’ (Virgin, glorious among virgins). Here the soprano soloist and chorus sing at full tilt in music that, once again, would not sound out of place in an opera. The following stanzas are much more supplicatory in nature, however, and Standford matches the sentiments. A potent climax is attained at ‘In die judicii’ and then another follows at ‘Confoveri gratia’ which gradually recedes. The ending, commencing around 8:32, is one of the most inspired passages in the whole work. Stanford reintroduces the generous theme first heard in the Prelude and there follows a lengthy unfolding of the last two lines of the poem ‘Fac, ut animae donetur/Paradisi gloria. Amen.’ (Grant that my soul be given the glory of Paradise.) In his notes for the Hickox recording Lewis Foreman writes as follows of these pages: “The effect of the infinite … is remarkable: each time the work appears to be ending we seem to reach the crest of a hill only to find the path stretching onward and upward to another … Stanford at his most visionary (and Catholic!) creates the wonderful effect of a beneficent Heaven.”

This is a very fine, strongly committed performance of the Stabat Mater and when one hears a performance such as this – or the Hickox – one can only wonder why choral societies resolutely ignore this rich, dramatic score.

The other two works on the disc come from opposite poles of Stanford’s career. He wrote The Resurrection, his first major choral work, while he was studying in Leipzig with Carl Reinecke. (I’m indebted to Jeremy Dibble’s notes for the background to both of these pieces.) In fact the work was originally written using a German text under the title Die Auferstehung and it was only later that an English translation was made. The chosen text was Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock’s poem, the very same that Mahler used in part for the finale of his Second Symphony.

Stanford begins with a solemn orchestral Prelude which features a dignified cello solo, here played very well by Jesper Svedberg, who I believe is the BSO’s principal cellist. At 1:55 the music becomes more lively, leading to the first choral section. The choir’s music is essentially joyful in character and reminded me of Mendelssohn, as did much of the work as a whole. A solo tenor takes over for the third and fourth stanzas of the poem (from 6:21), joined eventually by the chorus. Here the orchestral scoring is more delicate. The fifth and final stanza (from 8:52) reprises first the choir’s original material and then (10:30) the Prelude. There’s a big, rapturous finish. I was interested to hear this piece and it’s very good that it has achieved a recording. However, it seems to me that at this stage, understandably, Stanford had not fully digested the German influences nor had he really found his own voice.

The history of Song to the Soul is interesting. Stanford wrote it for an American choir to sing during a projected visit by him to New England in 1915 during which he would have conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and received an honorary doctorate from Yale. Sadly, the dangers of a wartime crossing of the Atlantic put paid to the trip. The composition went ahead, however, and for it Stanford used and expanded two Whitman settings from his set of solo songs, Songs of Faith, Op. 97. I’ve heard the solo originals before, both in Stephen Varcoe’s survey of Stanford songs with piano (Hyperion CDA67124 - review review) and also in their orchestral guise in Christopher Maltman’s fine collection of English Orchestral Songs (Hyperion CDA67065) but the choral version was entirely new to me. That’s not surprising because Jeremy Dibble tells us that Song to the Soul remained both unpublished and unperformed at Stanford’s death and it was only in May 2015 that a performance finally took place, in an edition by Dibble. Fittingly that performance, under David Hill, took place in Stanford’s home city of Dublin.

The extent to which Stanford expanded his original songs can be gauged by the fact that the songs take some seven minutes to perform whereas Song to the Soul is nearly twice as long. The choice of texts is interesting. The work, which is continuous, concludes with Joy, shipmate, joy! Before that, and accounting for the largest part of the piece, is a setting of the same words that Vaughan Williams used in Toward the Unknown Region. By an interesting coincidence VW’s piece was first performed at the 1907 Leeds Festival; the same festival included the premiere of Stanford’s Stabat Mater and at that time Stanford was still the director of the Festival.

It has to be said that Stanford’s setting is nowhere near as visionary as is VW’s response to the same words. However, the music is accomplished and eloquent and attains a tremendous, aspirational climax at ‘Then we burst forth’. At 10:20, after a very brief orchestral bridging passage, comes the setting of Joy, shipmate, joy! For this the music is swift and eager, as befits the words. I’m very glad indeed that this score has finally come into the public domain, albeit a hundred years late. I would suggest that it is very well worth the attention of choral societies.

So, here we have a very fine collection of Stanford’s choral-orchestral music. Stabat Mater is, in my opinion, a masterpiece and it receives here a performance – and recording – that is fully worthy of it. The other two pieces don’t match its stature but they are valuable and welcome additions to the Stanford discography. Naxos already has in its catalogue a very good recording of Stanford’s Requiem so it may be too much to hope that they would entertain another. On the other hand, that recording, admirable though it is, is now over twenty years old and the team who have recorded the Stabat Mater with such distinction would make a very fine job of it. In many respects the Requiem is an even more rewarding score than the Stabat Mater so I would be thrilled if David Hill were to investigate it. In the meantime all admirers of Stanford should hasten to acquire this present CD even if they already have the Hickox recording.

John Quinn



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