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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Fairy Day [18:41]
Overture in the Style of a Tragedy [8:56]
A Song of Agincourt [15:49]
Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue [16:42]
A Welcome March [5:24]
Kerry Stamp (soprano)
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley
rec. 2018, Ulster Hall, Belfast
Text included
HYPERION CDA68283 [65:32]

It would seem that the interest in Stanford’s music continues to expand; in recent months we have had recordings of his chamber music and a Mass, and his last opera The Travelling Companion, considered to be his very best, has just been recorded.

This is all to the good, for Stanford held an immensely important place in the music of Britain in the 19th Century, and whilst he fell out of favour after WW1, such are the vagaries of musical fashion that we need not deduce from that, that his music is worthless. In the past Hyperion have put us in their debt by recording much of his output; a glance at their catalogue shows a huge range of works in all forms bar the operatic, and now they do it again with this truly splendid CD. Every piece on it is well worth an extended listen, but for me the very best is his Op.131, Fairy Day, a setting of three poems by William Allingham (1824-89), who was famous for his children’s poems, especially those relating to the mysterious and supernatural. Described as ‘Three Idylls for Female Chorus and Small Orchestra’, they are beguiling, scored with real delicacy for the orchestra, the colours reminding me of the pastel shades I saw as a child in illustrations of fairy scenes. The first song Fairy Dawn depicts the sensuous awakening of the Fairy world, the second, Fairy Noon, begins with a magical horn call, subsequently reworked and extended by the cor anglais, summoning the fairies to rest out of the heat of the day. The third, Fairy Night is a lullaby, where allegretto sections are interspersed by the lullaby, which is developed and transformed with subtly modified orchestration until, for the last occurrence, the composer uses solo strings and wind to ravishing effect.

A Song of Agincourt is a commemoration of all those members of The Royal College of Music who fought and died in WW1. It uses the 15th Century ‘Agincourt Song’, later also used by Walton in his music for Olivier’s film of Henry V. It forms the first subject with enormous elan, and is followed by a dreamy second subject that is itself succeeded by a second very vigorous folksong-like march. Then a nocturne, replete with distant horn calls provides an effective contrast. The ending of the work sees Stanford reprise the earlier themes leading to a rousing ending.

Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue is Stanford’s reworking of the last two movements of his second organ sonata. He dedicated it to Widor ”and to the Great Country to which he belongs”. He incorporates the music of the Marseillaise, and has re-orchestrated the original work with great brilliance. The Solemn March is a stately affair with drums and brass ringing out impressively, the Marseillaise appearing quietly to considerable effect. The Heroic Epilogue again uses the Marseillaise, this time in its entirety as a tribute to the stand taken by the French Army at Verdun and to lament the destruction of the medieval cathedral of Reims. The whole piece is most affecting, and today we can only be appalled at the colossal number of deaths and injuries inflicted on both French and German soldiers over a battle that lasted 303 days and which gained the Germans nothing.
A Welcome March was composed for the visit of Edward VII to Ireland in 1903. Stanford used the occasion to pen his own ‘Pomp and Circumstance March’, being a great admirer of Elgar’s originals. He also takes the opportunity to quote Irish songs, but I’m afraid that his efforts do not come anywhere near to matching Elgar’s for sheer memorability.
The CD opens with the 9-minute Overture in the Style of a Tragedy from 1903. There is no evidence that it was ever performed in Stanford’s lifetime. Redolent of Brahms, it belongs to the genus of works such as the Tragic Overture and Parry’s Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy. It makes a fine opening to the disk.
All-in-all I am most impressed by what I have heard here. The entire production is up to Hyperion’s usual exalted standard, with extremely detailed notes by Jeremy Dibble and the full text of the poems. The orchestra play very well, and the female chorus and soloist contribute fetchingly to the three songs. Finally, the recording is impactive and full, making it easy for me to declare that this CD is strongly recommended.

Jim Westhead
Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ John Quinn ~ Paul Corfield Godfrey

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