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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1925)
Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’, Op.173 [67.51]
At the Abbey Gate, Op.177 [12.07]
Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Ruari Bowen (tenor), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)
BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales/Adrian Partington
rec. live, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 27 and 29 October 2018
LYRITA SRCD382 [79.57]

Considering that the vocal score of Stanford’s Via Victrix had been published in 1920, it is a real mystery why this music should have lain completely neglected and unperformed for nearly a century before its première in Cardiff last autumn. One solitary movement had been given with organ accompaniment in 1920, but thereafter the work had been totally ignored and forgotten until Jeremy Dibble excavated and edited the orchestral parts for a first outing at the end of October 2018 by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales in a packed Hoddinott Hall. I was present at that event, at the end of which the audience were hustled out quickly to allow for a patching session to be undertaken to fix a couple of glitches in the recording of the live performance (the mass had proved in performance to be considerably longer that the estimated duration anticipated in the BBC programme). This world première had been preceded by a flurry of articles including an interview between the conductor Adrian Partington and John Quinn which was published on this site during the summer of 2018, highlighting Stanford’s intention that this – his most substantial mass setting – should be seen as a memorial to the dead of the First World War.

In a review of the work's premiere published at that time on the Seen and Heard pages of this website, I made a number of observations on both the music and performance which for the sake of convenience I repeat here (with some amendment and additions). Like many vocal scores, the published edition of the Via Victrix had given only a general overview of the piece, although the influence of Beethoven in particular on the closing Dona nobis pacem was evident, as the earlier interview had already pinpointed. But apart from the unexpected recurrence of the word pax in the final bars of the Gloria, the echoes of Beethoven in the Dona nobis pacem are the only real indicators in this mass of the presence of war in the background of its composition. The recitative contralto entry on the words Agnus Dei is indeed a very close imitation of the similar passage in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and this is followed as in Beethoven by an instrumental military march leading to the prayer for peace. But unlike Beethoven the march itself is more straightforward than Beethoven’s charge into chaos and discord, and the final resolution in Stanford is in consequence more easily achieved. In fact one gets the distinct impression that the employment of the religious text at times almost gets in the way of the idea of a commemoration for the war dead, and it is perhaps noteworthy that the best of the choral pieces written in the aftermath of the horrors of the trenches were those which employed exclusively or predominantly secular texts – Elgar’s The Spirit of England, Delius’s Requiem, Holst’s Ode to Death, Finzi’s Requiem da camera, Foulds’s World Requiem, Bliss’s Morning Heroes and Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem foremost among them.

But, as I went on to observe last autumn, this is perhaps to belabour Stanford’s Via Victrix for not being something that one might have expected, rather than for what is actually is. And it is a very effective setting in its own right of the liturgical text of the Roman Catholic mass replete with many imaginative touches, such as the tortured choral jabs in the Crucifixus, and magnificent climaxes in the central and closing sections of the Gloria and the Sanctus. The scoring for the quartet of solo singers, more often employed as a sort of semi-chorus in contrast to the main body of the choir than as soloists in their own right, is well-integrated and subtly blended. There are occasional points where Stanford seems to be about to set out on the course of a rigidly academic fugue, but he reins himself in and builds his climaxes in a less pedagogic fashion. Sometimes too his repetition of phrases is too literal, not screwing the tension up to a greater height as one might have wished; but such episodes never overstay their welcome. The scoring, and the sometimes unexpected harmonic contrasts, are masterful.

The singing of the solo quartet was excellently blended last autumn, perhaps the male singers slightly more mellifluous than the women, although Kiandra Howarth negotiated some decidedly tricky passages at the outset of the Agnus Dei with deceptive ease. I suspect that some of the more awkward sections may have been the subject of retakes in this recording. The choral writing throughout is considerate (the model of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis neatly sidestepped here!) and the singing is gloriously controlled over some passages of extreme dynamic contrast. I concluded last autumn with thanks to Jeremy Dibble (who then contributed a valuable programme note, expanded substantially for the CD booklet here) and BBC Wales for letting us hear a score which certainly did not deserve complete neglect, and which I anticipated would presumably make rapid advances among amateur choral societies who have embraced Stanford’s Requiem in recent years.

For those who heard the broadcast on the radio, I should add that the Lyrita recording makes the very most of the acoustic of the resonant Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff and the sound generally seems to have a little more body than it was vouchsafed by the BBC engineers last autumn. Direct comparisons are of course no longer appropriate since the BBC transcription online is no longer available. However the soloists are now more closely observed in the microphone balance, which robs them of some of the blend that was apparent in the concert hall.

To round off this invaluable first release, which will deservedly attract purchasers and collectors of British choral music, we are even given an additional item in the form of another piece written by Stanford to commemorate the dead of the First World War. Unlike the mass, this anthem written in memory of the entombment of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey had been given a full performance at the time of its composition (as part of a concert centred around Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius) but had been no less comprehensively neglected since. I have to observe that Stanford, working here on a smaller scale and to a modern text, makes more impact in his treatment of the words than he managed to do in the mass. The orchestra too seems to be more emotionally treated, Elgarian indeed in the manner of the latter’s Grania and Diarmid funeral march, making a grander impact in the outer purely orchestral sections of the work. Gareth Brynmor John too makes more of an impression than he did in the mass, declaiming the oddly unconventional text by Charles John Darling (1849-1936) with passion and involvement. The very ending of the work, as the orchestra dies away seemingly into the distance leaving the unaccompanied organ to fade in its turn, is highly impressive.

The booklet, quite apart from the extended essay by Jeremy Dibble, also supplies full texts and translations – although these are restricted to Latin (for the Mass) and English only. This is an issue of importance which deserves every support.

Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous review: John Quinn

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