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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Overture in the style of a tragedy Op. 90 (1903) [8:56]
Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue Op. 151 (1918) [16:42]
A Welcome March Op. 87 (1903) [5:24]
Fairy Day - Three Idylls for Female Chorus and Small Orchestra Op. 131 (1912) [18:41]
A Song of Agincourt Op. 168 (1918-19) [15:49]
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley
rec. 2018, Ulster Hall, Belfast, United Kingdom
HYPERION CDA68283 [65:32]

This most welcome disc from Hyperion continues the recent trend whereby music by Stanford that has been completely neglected and, frankly, largely forgotten receives an overdue revival on CD. Earlier this year we had the premiere recording of the Mass Via Victrix, Op 173, which demonstrated that the work in question was a composition of genuine stature (review). Waiting in the wings is a recording of his last opera, The Travelling Companion, Op 146 (1916), which, I understand, is due for imminent release by SOMM Recordings.

Howard Shelley’s programme of orchestral music comprises pieces previously unknown to me – or, at least, unknown to me in this guise in the case of Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue. This piece is an orchestration by the composer himself of the last two movements of his Organ Sonata no 2 in G minor, which carries the same opus number; I’m mildly surprised that Stanford didn’t differentiate the two works, perhaps by making the orchestral version Op. 151a. A recording of the sonata itself was reviewed appreciatively by John France a few years ago. Composed in August 1917 and dedicated to Widor, the organ sonata, in Jeremy Dibble’s words, “paid homage to the titanic struggle the French army had experienced in 1916 at the battle of Verdun and the destruction of the medieval cathedral at Rheims…” The second movement of the sonata was a funeral march and the finale originally bore the title ‘Verdun’.

The Solemn March is noble and eloquent in a wholly unforced way at the start. There’s a short, more vigorous section partway through in which the percussion and trumpets are prominent. Then the opening mood is restored, this time with rippling harp, and the March achieves a tranquil ending. If the March was mainly inward in nature, the Heroic Epilogue is much more outgoing. There had been some subtle references to the ‘Marseillaise’ in the March but now the Epilogue is overtly based on that tune; indeed, it’s used symphonically. Eventually, the Epilogue culminates in a full-throated rendition of the ‘Marseillaise’ by the brass. It might be thought that this is a mere pièce d’occasion but in fact these two movements seem to me to constitute a sincere doffing of Stanford’s cap to French courage.

A Song of Agincourt is also inextricably linked to the Great War. Stanford composed it ‘in commemoration of those members of the Royal College of Music who fought, worked and died for their country (1914-18)'. The title of the work reflects Stanford’s incorporation into his score of the well-known fifteenth-century ‘Agincourt Song’. This is a substantial tone poem which is, like the Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue, extremely well scored for orchestra. The piece is constructed around three musical ideas. The lively opening is founded on the ‘Agincourt Song’ itself. At 2:46 the clarinet introduces a relaxed, lyrical second subject, which is very appealing. At 6:46 the third idea is heard; this is a sprightly folk-like quick march. These three ideas are then expertly developed – most pleasing of all, so far as I’m concerned, is a tranquil passage based on the second theme. Just before 13:00 the ‘Agincourt Song’ returns once more, very fully scored. However, Stanford resists the temptation to end with this theme and instead provides a richly scored apotheosis of the second subject before a vigorous and concise coda. A Song of Agincourt strikes me as a successful and far from insignificant piece.

A Welcome March was written for the State Visit of King Edward VII to Ireland in the summer of 1903. Apparently, the intention was that the march would be played at various stops along the King’s progress and by a variety of ensembles. Stanford wove into the musical fabric of the march a number of familiar Irish tunes and Jeremy Dibble tells us that the composer sought to provide an Irish equivalent of the first two of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches. To be honest, I don’t think the march quite matches Elgar’s standard but it’s still a good piece.

Also from 1903 is Overture in the style of a tragedy. This had to wait over 100 years to achieve a first performance: Kenneth Montgomery and the Ulster Orchestra gave its belated premiere in August 2010 in Belfast. It could be said to be Stanford’s equivalent of Brahms’ Tragic Overture. The work mixes sections of turbulence with passages of appealing lyricism. It’s too good a piece to have slumbered unplayed for a century.

To complete his programme, Howard Shelley gives us music in a very different vein to the other pieces on this disc. Fairy Day - Three Idylls for Female Chorus and Small Orchestra. These are part songs in which Stanford sets poems by his fellow Irishman, William Allingham (1842-1889) for SSAA chorus and chamber orchestra. To be candid, the poems are of their time and it’s perhaps best to focus on the music – and the performance. Both music and performance transcend the lyrics. The opening song. ‘Fairy Dawn’ is lithe and energetic and in this present performance the music is as light as a feather. I found it delightful and charming. The central song, ‘Fairy Noon’ is atmospheric and slow – the poem suggests the fairies’ need for a snooze in the warm lunchtime sunshine. As well as winningly attractive choral writing, Stanford’s score is full of delectable writing for the horn and woodwind. The piece is enchanting. ‘Fairy Night’ is essentially a lullaby but it has some lightly dancing episodes too. The music is innocent and pure. I must confess that when I looked at the track list and then cast my eye over the texts prior to playing the disc for the first time I feared that Fairy Day would be somewhat twee. In fact, what we hear is an essay in Mendelssohnian delicacy. It’s a charmer and its cause is further advanced by the quality of the performance. Those members of the Ulster orchestra who are involved play with gossamer lightness. The singing of Codetta is ideal: their sound is fresh, pure of tone and falls very pleasingly on the ear. The choir comprises 25 singers – 12 sopranos and 13 altos – and they are ideal advocates for these songs. In the first and third songs there’s a part for a solo soprano and one of the choir, Kerry Stamp, takes this role very successfully.

In the other pieces, which are much more fully scored, the Ulster Orchestra plays extremely well. I hadn’t expected to find Howard Shelley in a conducting assignment of this nature but he does very well, drawing committed playing from the orchestra and, in Fairy Day, a performance of great finesse. The recording has been engineered very successfully by Ben Connellan and produced by Annabel Connellan: they’ve done a fine job. The excellent notes are by Stanford expert Jeremy Dibble.

Hyperion don’t claim these as premiere recordings so far as I can see, but I suspect that most, if not all the items are new to the recording studio. All are well worth hearing, especially in such good performances and their neglect is unjustfied. Our knowledge of Stanford’s music is hereby expanded and that can only be a good thing.

John Quinn

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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