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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Mass Via Victrix, Op 173 (ed. Jeremy Dibble) (1914-18) [67:51]
At the Abbey Gate, Op 177 (ed. Jeremy Dibble) (1920) [12:07]
Kiandra Howarth (soprano); Jess Dandy (contralto); Ruairi Bowen (tenor); Gareth Brynmor John (baritone);
BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales/Adrian Partington
rec. live, 27 October 2018 (Op 173); 29 October 2018 (Op 177), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff
First recordings
Texts and English translation included
LYRITA SRCD382 [79:57]

For British music devotees in general and admirers of the music of Stanford in particular, this a release of great interest. Here we have premiere recordings of two vocal/orchestral works by Stanford, both of which are inextricably linked with the First World War and which have languished in complete obscurity for decades.

These forces gave the first complete performance of the Mass Via Victrix last October and, having got wind of it beforehand, I interviewed the conductor, Adrian Partington to learn more about the work and its background. The performance itself was subsequently reviewed by my Seen and Heard colleague Paul Corfield Godfrey. Some readers may have heard the BBC broadcast of the performance.

Despite his staunchly Protestant background, this was actually the second setting of the Mass that Stanford made. The first, a Mass in G, Op 46 was written much earlier, in 1891-92, in response to a commission and was specifically designed for liturgical use – admittedly, for liturgy on a rather grand scale. After receiving a liturgical performance at London’s Brompton Oratory in October 1893 and, shortly afterwards, a second performance, also liturgical, in New York, Stanford’s Op 43 lapsed into complete obscurity from which it was rescued only in 2014, when the Choir of Exeter College, Oxford recorded it (review).

The Via Victrix Mass was rather different, however, since it was composed without the stimulus of a commission. Stanford composed it in 1919, giving it the full title ‘Mass Via Victrix 1914-1918’. He added a Latin superscription on the title page, which is of great significance. This is from Psalm 66, verse 12 and it reads as follows: ‘Transiverunt per ignem et aquam et eduxsisti in refrigerium’. In the booklet, the Stanford expert, Jeremy Dibble, includes Tyndale’s English translation: ‘[They] went through fire and water and thou hast brought [them] into a wealthy place.’ May I suggest, with due deference, that an even more apposite translation might be: ‘They passed through fire and water and you brought them to a place of refreshment.’

Whichever translation one adopts, its very presence on the title page tells us much about Stanford’s motives in making this setting of the Mass. Prof. Dibble puts it this way in his notes: “The mass was therefore intended as a work of thanksgiving, of celebration for the final victory, but equally one which looked into the heart of the nation, to commiserate with those who grieved, to pray for those whose sense of loss was inconsolable, and to urge for a spirit of renewal in the face of the hardships and sorrows the nation had had to endure.” I had heard the work, through my off-air recording of the BBC broadcast, before I read those comments by Jeremy Dibble and I have to say that I can definitely hear all those sentiments – thanksgiving, celebration, remembrance and renewal – in Stanford’s music. I was also struck by comments that Adrian Partington made to me when we were discussing the work in advance of its belated premiere. Noting the presence in the score not just of reflective episodes – as we might expect – but also of martial rhythms, he said that he feels that above all Stanford was celebrating the achievements of the fallen, rather than mourning them. This is a work of patriotism and pride. He reminded me that in the immediate aftermath of the Great War many British people were proud of what the country had achieved and didn’t view the deaths as a waste. Consequently, he finds definite patriotism – and pride – in Stanford’s score. “It feels like a military piece. I don’t hear pacifism or regret. I feel he was writing something because he was pleased that his side had won.” Not for nothing, it seems, did Stanford give his Mass setting a title that can be translated as ‘The Way of Victory’.

Notwithstanding Stanford’s eminence in British musical life, Via Victrix made no impression at the time. Indeed, though the vocal score was published in 1920 only the Gloria achieved a performance. This happened at a concert of British music given in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge in June 1920. It seems that Stanford himself conducted the Gloria but although he was given a distinguished team of soloists, including Agnes Nicholls, Gervase Elwes and Plunket Green, he had to make do with organ accompaniment. Thus it was that the Cardiff performance preserved on this CD was the first occasion on which the Mass Via Victrix was heard in full and with orchestra.

So, now that the Mass can be heard, what is the music like? Well, in a word, it’s impressive. At the start of the ‘Kyrie’ we hear in the orchestra one of the martial rhythms of which Adrian Partington spoke. It underpins long legato choral lines. Both the soloists and the chorus offer sensitive singing and the orchestral playing is similarly pleasing. The soloists are to the fore in the tranquil ‘Christe’ section and they make a good impression as a team. This is perhaps a good time to say that for the most part Stanford requires his soloists to sing as a quartet; there are relatively few significant solos and, indeed, for the longest of these we have to wait until the ‘Agnus Dei’. The second ‘Kyrie’ is swifter and more urgent than the preceding music though the movement comes to a slow, thoughtful end.

The ‘Gloria’ begins joyfully, the music impelled along in compound time. In these pages I admired the energy in the performance. The ‘Qui tollis’ section (from 5:29) is dominated by the soloists and in this section, which is very expressively done, my attention was caught by the chromatic nature of the soloists’ parts. ’Quoniam tu solus’ brings a complete change of mood as exciting crescendi pave the way for a thrilling key change. Incidentally, Stanford’s use of key changes for tension, excitement or expression is a recurring feature of Via Victrix. There follows a passage of vigorous contrapuntal music, which the performers invest with great vitality. However, Stanford has a surprise up his sleeve just before the end. There’s a passage marked Quasi larghetto et tranquillo (13:09). Initially this passage is quiet, which is a bit of a surprise after the preceding extrovert music, though the final ‘Amen’ is loud. But the real surprise is that Stanford varies the text of the ‘Gloria’: what is sung at this point is ‘In terra pax, Amen’. Perhaps this is of a piece with the desire for “a spirit of renewal”, as referenced by Jeremy Dibble?

The ‘Credo’ gets off to a strong, emphatic start. At ‘Et incarnatus est’ there’s a mood change, nicely prepared by Adrian Partington. In the passage that follows the soloists are required to take the lead and they do so with fine conviction. Hereabouts, I found Stanford’s harmonic language, and the tensions it sets up, very interesting. Stanford inserts a brief Adagio segment into this section for the words ‘Et homo factus est’ and this is a telling little passage. Just as telling, a few second later, is the way the orchestra achieves ppp immediately before ‘Crucifixus’. The ‘Crucifixus’ episode is very dramatic and here I admire Stanford’s use both of dynamic contrasts and key changes. The music is very hushed at ‘Et sepultus est’, after which there is a short but exquisite orchestral postlude to the section. This, I believe, is where Stanford quotes from his Stabat Mater (1907). As we shall see, that quotation recurs later on. ‘Et resurrexit’ (12:02) grows from nothing via a very exciting crescendo. In the music that follows, Stanford again heightens the interest through his use of keys. It’s perhaps not altogether surprising that he launches into a short fugal episode for ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’ and that paves the way for a forthright conclusion to the movement.

The ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’, which form a seamless whole, are really rather special. The ‘Sanctus’ opens with a mellifluous orchestral introduction and the singing which follows is, for the most part, fairly subdued. At the word ‘Sabaoth’ we hear martial rhythms again and then the choral writing becomes more confident in tone. The ‘Hosanna’ is relaxed and flowing. The ‘Benedictus’ follows without a break and during its orchestral prelude we hear again the Stabat Mater quotation; indeed, this time it’s specifically shown on a separate stave in the vocal score. The ‘Benedictus’ as a whole is a delight: the music is fluent and full of delicate charm. For the most part the soloists lead the way with the chorus rather in the background. The present performance is beautifully paced and the singers and players demonstrate great finesse. These linked sections of the Mass are very fine.

I mentioned that we have to wait until the ‘Agnus Dei’ for a substantial vocal solo. It’s worth the wait. A soft orchestral introduction gives way to a gently beseeching soprano solo. Kiandra Howarth sings this extended solo very expressively. This part of the score features a notable viola solo partnering the soprano. The nutty, melancholy tone of the viola complements the soprano voice very well. There’s an interesting passage beginning at 4:52 where, one after the other, the remaining three vocal soloists have quasi recitative passages, singing ‘Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi’. The resemblance to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is crystal clear and, as if to emphasise the kinship, Stanford., like Beethoven, immediately launches into an extended orchestral passage. His vigorous march isn’t as unsettled and unsettling as the remarkable passage in Beethoven’s Mass but the intention to create musical strife and turbulence is just as clear. When the choir re-enters (7:02) they sing a succession of crescendi and then Stanford surprises us again, just as he did at the end of the ‘Gloria’. This time he does so by means of a sudden pause after which soloists and chorus sing the word ‘pacem’ quietly and sweetly. Have we arrived at the ‘place of refreshment’ I mentioned earlier? I rather think so. This mood established, Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix now achieves a satisfyingly subdued end.

Now that I’ve had the chance to hear this major setting of the Mass and get to know it, I’m all the more astonished that it lay in obscurity for nearly a century. It’s an accomplished, eloquent and significant work and it’s a crying shame that Stanford’s music fell out of fashion, even in the last years of his life, condemning this work to a completely undeserved obscurity. It’s reappearance now is a cause for rejoicing and so too is the very high standard of the work’s first performance, preserved here. The four young soloists all acquit themselves very well indeed and, crucially in view of the nature of Stanford’s writing for them, they sing as a team. The BBC National Chorus of Wales sings the music with great conviction and polish. Their orchestral colleagues are no less impressive. Stanford’s climactic moments are nobly sounded while the many passages of delicate music are sensitively delivered. When I met him ahead of the premiere to discuss the work, Adrian Partington’s enthusiasm for the piece was palpable. That zeal for the music comes across in the way he conducts it. I was able to have access to a vocal score for my listening work and I noted that the singers and players were highly observant of the details of the score: clearly the performance had been scrupulously prepared.

Also receiving its first recording here is the smaller scale work for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, At the Abbey Gate. Some background information is appropriate, I think, and for this I’m indebted to Jeremy Dibble’s notes. In 1920 it was decided to inter in Westminster Abbey, the resting place of so many British sovereigns, the body of an unknown British soldier who had been killed in France. The body was brought from France and on 11 November 1920 (Remembrance Day) it was taken in solemn procession through the streets of London, past the Cenotaph, which was unveiled by King George V on that occasion, and buried with great ceremony in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Just before this, on 26 October, The Times newspaper published an article about the forthcoming ceremony which included a poem by Mr Justice Charles John Darling, entitled ‘At the Abbey Gate’. The poem is an imagined dialogue between the spirit of the Unknown Warrior and those who assembled to greet his body as it arrived at the Abbey.

Stanford decided to set the poem to music. He must have worked quickly for the piece was completed during November 1920 and first performed, under the composer’s direction, the following March. In the setting the baritone sings the words of the Unknown Warrior. There’s a lengthy and dignified orchestral introduction – the principal tempo marking is In modo di marcia funèbre – which presumably represents the procession to the Abbey. The choir greets – or, more accurately, challenges - the Soldier (at 3:50). Frankly, the music to which the dialogue is set is not top-drawer Stanford. However, at 7:30, the Soldier reveals his identity (‘I was – and am No One’) and the hushed music to which this passage is set is impressive, The Soldier is encouraged to ‘Pass on’ and the music that follows has grandeur. There’s a stately orchestral postlude (from 9:33) which culminates in a quotation of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul (10:38). Here, the organ joins in, giving the music due splendour, before the piece dies away to a quiet conclusion. The poem isn’t great poetry but we should recognise – and respect – that it reflects the very genuine spirit of the times. The same is true of Stanford’s music. It’s well performed here. Gareth Brynmor John is a dignified soloist and Adrian Partington gets a full-hearted response from the choir and orchestra. By no stretch of the imagination could At the Abbey Gate be said to match Stanford’s achievement in the Mass setting but it’s good that Stanford admirers can hear the piece for themselves.

The main prize on this CD, though, is clearly the Mass Via Victrix. Both scores have been edited for performance by Jeremy Dibble. That must have been a huge undertaking and he deserves our thanks for bringing these scores back into the sunlight. So, too, do the BBC in Wales for having the vision to put on the performance of the Mass as part of the Corporation’s observance of the centenary of the Armistice. Adrian Partington has brought both scores vividly to life in carefully prepared and highly committed performances. The recorded sound in both works is very good indeed - At the Abbey Gate was recorded in the same venue as the Mass but under studio conditions. The engineers have achieved a very good and realistic balance between orchestra, choir and soloists. In particular, it’s very pleasing that the choir, who were placed behind and above the orchestra, are never swamped by the instruments. Jeremy Dibble’s notes are ideal and give the fullest possible background to this unfamiliar music.

After 99 years, the Mass Via Victrix has finally emerged from the shadows in this splendid and important recording. What it needs now if it is to establish the place it deserves in the repertoire is more live performances in the run-up to the Stanford centenary in 2024. I hope that, hearing this disc, conductors of choral societies will be emboldened to take it up; it deserves no less.

John Quinn

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