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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
For lo, I raise up, Op 145 (1914) [8:05]
Morning Service in C, Op 115 (1909 - consisting of Te Deum [7:45]; Benedictus [5:31]; Jubilate [3:34]) [16:50]
Three Latin Motets, Op 38 (Justorum animae [3:23]; Caelos ascendit hodie [1:59]; Beati quorum via [3’29]) [8:51]
Lighten our darkness (1918) [3’48]
O for a closer walk with God, Op113 No6b [3’35]
Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat, Op 164 (1918) [11:51]
Fantasia and Toccata in D minor for organ, Op 57 (1894) [12:14]
Eternal Father, Op 135 No 2 (1913) [6:29]
St. Patrick’s Breastplate (1912) [9:13]
Trinity Brass; Owain Park, Alexander Hamilton organ
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton
rec June 2016 in Hereford Cathedral; July 2016 in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge (unaccompanied works)
Latin and English texts included
HYPERION CDA68174 [81:02]

Hyperion are revisiting this repertoire: all of it (save the organ work) was included in on a themed survey of Stanford’s s sacred Choral Music – recorded as a double and a single CD in 1997 and reissued in a three disc format in 2012 (CDA 66974). In that case the performers were the Winchester Cathedral Choir (including boy trebles and altos) under David Hill.

Indeed, the Three Motets and the late anthem ‘For lo, I raise’ featured in another Stanford programme in one of Hyperion’s very first records from 1981 – that time in luminous performances from the Choir of Worcester Cathedral under the legendary Donald Hunt (CDA 66030). Lovely as those performances are, I feel that the intervening thirty-odd years have taken something of a toll on the recorded sound.

Since then of course there has been a revival in the fortunes of the music of Stanford (as there has of his near contemporary Parry) much of which I suspect can be attributed to the extremely well-informed and enthusiastic proselytizing of Jeremy Dibble, who contributes a fascinating note to this issue. Indeed he also provided the notes (and one suspects the ‘concept’) to the Winchester recordings whose three discs were each imaginatively programmed according to distinct ‘eras’ within Stanford’s career (Cambridge, Edwardian and Georgian). Indeed the indefatigable Professor Dibble is to be further commended for the fresh historical perspectives and contexts he provides for the similar items on the new disc, drawn largely from the latter part of the composer’s career.

The main comparison points between Layton’s and Hill’s discs involve the performing forces. The new issue features an incisive and vividly recorded brass ensemble, Trinity Brass, (as well as organ) accompanying the Te Deum in C and St Patrick’s Breastplate in Stanford’s later expansions. But I think the main justification for this disc involves the use of the young adult sopranos and altos of this superb college choir. The security and incisiveness of their singing provides a fresh dimension through which to appreciate Stanford’s inspiration. The absolute clarity which characterises virtually all of Stephen Layton’s recordings is almost tangible here.

For a former chorister it is always a (rather salutary) experience to hear the staples of one’s youth performed and recorded professionally, as it were. (‘Properly’, in fact, one is liable to admit). This recording presents music it was easy to take for granted and see as ‘workaday’ all those years ago in, I feel, its best possible light. I recognise the sequences of notes I sung around Greater Manchester in the 1970s but suddenly they become proper music!

Having said that, the same could certainly be applied to the overlapping items in Hill’s splendid survey, where the Winchester forces are presented in a glowing halo of an acoustic, and the boys (and men) sing with effortless accuracy and feeling throughout. The only piece of Stanford’s I have sung as an adult (bass) is his ubiquitous (but glorious) ‘Blue Bird’, and so perhaps it’s a familiarity with (or a nostalgia for) the sound of boy trebles in the service/anthem repertoire that draws me toward the older recording. Layton’s amazing Trinity College forces, however, offer the opportunity to perceive this music in a different, more robust light.

The aforementioned unaccompanied motets are crisply articulated by the Trinity Choir, particularly the joyous ‘Caelos ascendit hodie’, in the most affirmative rendition of this little piece I have ever encountered. Another unaccompanied item is the ornate eight-part Magnificat which is beautifully coloured by these forces, and superbly caught by the engineers in the Trinity College chapel itself, whose cloisters would have been extremely familiar to Stanford, who led the choir himself there between 1873 and 1892. This work was intended as a peace offering for Parry, with whom Stanford had fallen out in 1917, but sadly the older composer died the following year before its publication. This knowledge perhaps intensifies one’s wonder at this superb, fervent performance. The penultimate track on the album is the exquisite tripartite motet ‘Eternal Father’ (after Robert Bridges) tenderly performed, the unaccompanied choir revelling in its complex harmonies and moods.

The items with organ and/or brass were recorded in the splendid spaces of Hereford Cathedral and the programme begins with an imposing performance of the rousing anthem ‘For lo, I raise up’, which Prof. Dibble notes was written as a response to the composer’s perception of Germany’s betrayal of its artistic heritage at the outset of the Great War. The jagged opening is assertive and impressive. The Hereford Willis organ, piloted by Owain Park, sounds tremendous throughout this piece which acts as an apt curtain-raiser. The more restrained and reflective episodes are perfectly managed by the choir as the piece winds down to its gentle coda.

Next we have the expanded ‘Te Deum’ from the familiar Morning Service in C, lustily sung and duly enhanced by the brass exclamations – a first recording of the work in this guise. The service’s other movements (with organ), ‘Benedictus’ and Jubilate’ work equally well and are spread across the album in an arrangement which I think suits it well. There are two shorter, gentler anthems ‘Lighten our darkness’ (here in a new edition prepared by Prof Dibble) and the more familiar ‘O for a closer walk with God’, both sung with admirable clarity (these accompanied by Alexander Hamilton on the organ), but I feel both performances here lose something compared to the boys’ voices on the earlier Winchester recording. These pieces epitomise, I feel, the appropriateness of well-trained boys’ (or girls’) voices in some of this repertoire, and this view convinces me that the present disc complements, rather than replaces its predecessor.

A purely instrumental interlude is provided by the Fantasia and Toccata in D minor for Organ, Op 57, performed with great finesse (and full appreciation of its Bachian undertones) by Owain Park. It is a real thrill to hear this wonderful instrument alone in this context. More excitement comes at the very end of this packed disc in the form of the expanded arrangement of St Patrick’s Breastplate, based upon the hymn of C.F. Alexander, and combining the old Irish tunes St Patrick’ and ‘Gartan’. The inclusion of a side-drum with the brass ensemble ensures a rousing conclusion to this disc, though I feel this work is little more than a rather quaint curiosity compared to what has gone before.

All in all though, this is another winner from Hyperion, taking full advantage of the presence of a superb conductor and choir on their roster, and affording us the opportunity to hear some familiar and venerable English church music afresh.

Richard Hanlon
 
Previous review: John Quinn

 

 




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