Philip STOPFORD (b. 1977)
In My Father’s House
In my Father’s house (2015) [6:09]
Bring us, O Lord God [4:14]
Ubi caritas (2015) [3:56]
Christ is our cornerstone (2015) [4:12]
Love divine (2005) [4:54]
The chorister prayer [3:25]
Jesu, lover of my soul (2013) [5:00]
O how glorious (2014) [5:53]
Ave maris stella (2015) [5:58]
Ave Maria (2003, rev 2004 & 2017) [3:46]
Stabat mater (2010) [3:45]
There is no rose (2015) [3:25]
A child is born in Bethlehem (2001) [1:56]
What sweeter music? [4:58]
A Christmas Blessing (2008) [2:51]
We three kings (2004) [3:21]
Silent night [4:54]
The star of kings (2015) [8:30]
Truro Cathedral Choir
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Christopher Gray
Luke Bond (organ)
rec. 2017, Truro Cathedral. DDD
REGENT REGCD517 [79:56]
This CD was made to mark the 40th birthday of Philip Stopford and it’s appropriate that the Choir of Truro Cathedral should do the honours. Stopford served as Organ Scholar at the cathedral, presumably for one year, from 1995. Later, the choir and their present Director of Music, Christopher Gray, made a disc of his music under the title Be not afraid (review). For this new disc Stopford has newly orchestrated many of the pieces, giving scope for the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
One important thing that Philip Stopford brings to composition is a significant career as a church musician. As a boy he was a chorister at Westminster Abbey. He was Organ Scholar at both Keble College, Oxford and Canterbury Cathedral. At the age of just 25 he was appointed Director of Music at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, serving from 2003 to 2010. Since 2015 he has plied his trade in the USA where he is Director of Music at Christ Church, Bronxville, NY. I’ve heard and enjoyed several of Stopford’s individual pieces in the past but although a number of discs devoted to his music have already appeared this is the first Stopford collection that’s come my way.
The valuable booklet notes are by Jeremy Summerly, who comments that while Stopford’s music is “generally easy on the ear – catchy, endearing and memorable – it has the occasional hard edge that reminds the listener that any truly valuable piece of music must engage the intellect as well as the senses.” By and large I’d agree with that statement but I have a couple of reservations. One is that, at least as far as the music here recorded is concerned, I largely listened in vain for much evidence of a hard edge. It’s there occasionally – in the third stanza of The star of kings and, quite rightly, in Stabat mater – but for the most part the pieces seem to pass on their way in an untroubled fashion. Looking back through my listening notes I see that about halfway through I wrote: “Grit? Edge?”. The other reservation I have concerns the orchestrations. These are skilfully done but, on several occasions, I felt that the scoring was a bit on the rich side. It may be significant that some of the pieces that I most enjoyed were the unaccompanied ones.
Those reservations aside, there’s much to enjoy here. Stopford has a genuine melodic gift, his music displays fine craftsmanship and, crucially, he communicates directly with the listener. I also had the impression as I listened that the music is enjoyable to sing. So, for example, In my Father’s house, one of several pieces written for an American church, is pretty typical in being attractive and melodious. It must be difficult for any composer to approach setting John Donne’s text, Bring us, O Lord God after the masterly setting by Sir William Harris. Stopford’s music is quite expansive but it isn’t at the same level of inspiration as Harris achieves and in this orchestral version the climaxes seem overblown.
Christ is our cornerstone is a piece that I liked very much. It was written to celebrate the reconsecration of the Catholic cathedral at Longford in the Republic of Ireland which had been badly damaged by fire in 2009. The choir is accompanied – to excellent effect – by brass and organ and the piece is founded upon a stirring, confident tune that lodges in the memory. The piece is a proper anthem with some quite elaborate choral writing yet I should think that it could equally well serve as a unison congregational hymn. I’m sure a congregation could easily get hold of the tune and would relish singing it. Equally impressive is O how glorious. This is an anthem for the Feast of All Saints and it uses the paraphrase of words from the Book of Revelation made and then memorably set to music by Basil Harwood. The outer sections of the piece are big, forthright and celebratory in nature but I also like the central reflective section, which fits the words very well.
Stabat mater sets just the first stanza of the long medieval poem. It was originally composed for solo soprano and organ but we hear it on this occasion sung by unison trebles with string accompaniment. The vocal line is wide-ranging and, as I indicated earlier, there’s a welcome note of astringency in the writing. Ave Maria has been through a number of iterations. It began life as a setting for male voices and organ and was then revised as a double choir piece. The latest version, with orchestra, is appealing and lyrical.
Ave maris stella is for a cappella choir in up to eight parts. This is a beautifully proportioned composition and the music, founded on a winning melodic base, is a fine response to the text. There is no rose is also unaccompanied but this time the writing is in just four parts. This piece was written for a school chamber choir and I like the simple, direct style of the music.
All the remaining pieces on the programme are Christmas compositions, some of which were more to my taste than others. Jeremy Summerly describes the arrangement of We three kings as “masterly”. Respectfully, I’d describe it as over-elaborate. A Christmas Blessing is described as “unapologetically accessible” and so it is; it’s also attractive. What sweeter music? benefits from a pleasing melody and warm harmonies. The star of kings is the only piece on the programme which features a bespoke text - in this case by Andrew Longfield. Much of the writing is fluent and lyrical though the music for the third of the four stanzas has a slightly darker hue.
It was only after completing my listening and ordering my thoughts that I looked on MusicWeb International to see if we’d reviewed any other discs of Philip Stopford’s music. I came across the review of the earlier Truro Cathedral disc by my colleague, Paul Corfield Godfrey. Paul’s generally positive appraisal included these words: “One must however question the wisdom of collecting so many small individual pieces by one composer on a single disc. This serves only to point up the relatively small compass of the music itself….this is not a disc to be listened to at a single sitting, rather one to be dipped into at different times. As I have indicated, there are some real gems here.” That pretty much sums up my own reaction to the music on this new disc.
I’ve admired several earlier CDs by the Truro Cathedral Choir and this one shows that standards remain very high. The release is notable because it marks the recording debut of the choir’s girl choristers. There are 19 of them, here singing alongside the 18 boy trebles and the adult alto, tenor and bass voices. The choir’s singing is extremely good and most enjoyable to hear.
The recorded sound is good, as is the documentation.