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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Songs of Faith, Love and Nonsense
Songs of Faith, Op 97 (1907) [19:05]
Three Songs of Robert Bridges, Op 43 (1891) [7:33]
Four Songs from Shamus O’Brien, Op 61 (1896) [11:15]
Nonsense Rhymes (pub. Post.) [24:06]
The Triumph of Love, Op 82 (1903) [15:51
Barkerolle – from Nonsense Rhymes (alternative version) [0:59]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
James Way (tenor)
Andrew West (piano)
rec. June 2019, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Texts included

In preparation for reviewing this new SOMM disc I looked back at the booklet notes that Jeremy Dibble authored for the CDs of Stanford songs recorded some 20 years ago by Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson for Hyperion (review ~ review). There I came across a number of quotations from Stanford’s writings, including this from Musical Composition (1911): “the writing of a good song is one of the most difficult tasks which a composer can undertake”. It was a challenge to which Stanford returned time and again throughout his composing career. In his magisterial biography of the composer, Charles Villiers Stanford. Man and Musician (2002), Prof Dibble has, by my count, fifty-three separate entries in the songs section of the List of Works appendix. However, simply quoting that figure significantly understates the actual number of songs that Stanford composed because a good number of those entries are for sets of songs.

I enjoyed discovering some of Stanford’s songs through those Varcoe-Benson discs, so I was delighted to receive this new SOMM compilation. Incidentally, there is very little duplication indeed between Hyperion and SOMM: Stephen Varcoe gave us two of the Whitman settings from Songs of Faith but that’s it. In fact, SOMM give us a substantial number of premiere recordings: The Robert Bridges songs are new to the catalogue and the Songs of Faith here receive their first complete recording.

Songs of Faith, here sung by Roderick Williams, comprises six songs; the first three are settings of Tennyson and the remainder are Whitman settings. Williams makes the opening ‘Strong Son of God, Immortal Love’ into a ringing, lyrical statement. As he sings, Andrew West’s piano contribution is ceaselessly rippling. By contrast, ‘God and the Universe’ is a much more inward affair. In Jeremy Dibble’s words, the song has a “desolate mood of doubt and fear”. I think it’s memorable and it’s compellingly delivered by Williams and West. The final Tennyson setting is ‘Faith’. This is a forthright statement and it’s proudly declaimed by Roderick Williams.

The first of the Whitman settings is ‘To the Soul’; it’s the self-same text which Stanford’s pupil, Vaughan Williams also set in 1907 in his choral work Toward the Unknown Region. By comparison with VW, Stanford doesn’t quite achieve – or, perhaps, aim for – the same degree of mystery in the opening stanzas but his music still has eloquent inwardness and in the last verse (‘Then we burst forth…’) there’s fervour to match the words. I found some of the harmonies intriguing, especially at ‘all is a blank before us’. ‘Tears’ is a very original song and these performers distil a potent atmosphere. The music builds from initial doubt and despair to a very powerful ending; that ending is superbly realised here. Finally comes ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy!’ in which Stanford’s music is urgent and ecstatic, doing justice to the text. It’s often said – and sometimes dismissively - that the influence of Brahms can be detected in Stanford’s music; personally, I usually find the Brahmsian influence to be beneficial. However, in these Songs of Faith I don’t think anyone would detect the hand of Brahms; rather, these songs are very original. I’ve heard two of them through Stephen Varcoe’s earlier recording but I’m delighted that we now have the full set available on disc, and in a terrific performance.

The Bridges settings are earlier. They are part of a collection which Stanford eventually published as Album of 12 English Songs. When he set the Bridges poems in 1891, they were hot off the press because the poems in question were part of a raft of poems which Bridges had published as recently as 1890. These are less complex, both as poems and as musical settings, than the Songs of Faith. In his afore-mentioned biography of Stanford, Prof Dibble describes them as “an attractive triptych of neo-Jacobean love songs”. I like them all. The second one, ‘I praise the tender flower’ has a vocal line that is especially high-lying at times; that’s no problem at all to Roderick Williams, of course. The song pleases with its relaxed charm. In the final song, ‘Say, I say! saith the music’ both Bridges and Stanford give voice to the happy eagerness of love.

There follow four songs which Stanford extracted from his highly successful romantic comedy opera, Shamus O’Brien. The first, ‘My heart is thrall to Kitty’s beauty’ is sung by the character Captain Trevor of the British Army. This number introduces us to tenor James Way. I don’t believe I’ve heard him before but he impresses with his clear, ringing voice. I’m slightly confused by the next two items, ‘Glengall’ and ‘Ochore, when I used to be young’. Prof Dibble tells us that these are both songs for the villain of the piece, Mike Murphy, yet here they are sung by different voices: has one been transposed? In the former James Way plausibly suggests an unpleasant, self-centred character. Jeremy Dibble describes ‘Ochore, when I used to be young’ as “a diffident jig”. Roderick Williams characterises the song effectively and he applies a mild Irish accent. The final offering, ‘I love my ould Ireland’ is also allotted to Williams. This is sung by the eponymous hero as he approaches the gallows (spoiler alert: he escapes) and it’s a suitably defiant, patriotic air. To be truthful, these songs, though expertly performed, did not attract me as much as the other music on this disc; perhaps in part that’s because the words are dated. Nonetheless, their first recording is welcome.

When I saw the title Nonsense Rhymes on the track list, I was mildly apprehensive: would these be trivial compositions? Happily, my fears were unfounded. There’s an interesting back story to these miniatures. Jeremy Dibble tells us that occasionally, when hosting one of his musical evenings at his London home, Stanford would be prevailed upon to sit down at the piano to sing and play one of his ‘Limericks’. Long presumed lost, the manuscripts turned up as recently as 1960, when they were published. There are fourteen in all – I don’t know if Stanford wrote any more which have not survived. With the exception of the last, which is by our old friend Anon, the little poems which Stanford chose are all by Edward Lear. What makes these short pieces so entertaining is that Stanford wove into them references to music by distinguished composers of the past. So, for instance, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Wagner are all gently – and affectionately – sent up. Hearing them as a set is almost like a Cook’s Tour of the Great Composers. Stanford is extremely skilful in his parodies; the music is never less than witty and is often genuinely funny.

I don’t want to spoil the surprises for prospective purchasers. However, let me just whet your appetite. ‘The Compleat Virtuoso’ is a little tribute to Stanford’s friend, Joseph Joachim; appropriately, references to the violin concertos of Mendelssohn and Beethoven are woven into the song. The longest, ‘The Absent Barber’, puts Handel firmly in the spotlight – there’s even a da capo, which Roderick Williams decorates suitably. Later, in ‘Gongdichtung’, the ‘Eroica’ meets Ein Heldenleben and, right at the end, Tod und Verklärung. The last song, ‘A Vision of Elizabeth’ pays tribute to Tristan und Isolde, but for the punchline, for reasons that will be obvious when you read the words, Stanford turns to Tannhäuser. These miniatures are a delight from start to finish. I’m not surprised they entertained Stanford’s circle; they certainly entertained me. The songs are shared between the singers – there’s one piece which is a little piano solo – and all three musicians clearly have a great deal of fun; the performances sparkle. Incidentally, right at the end of the disc Roderick Williams gives us an alternative version of ‘Barkerolle’. I listened to it immediately after hearing the first version and the two seemed identical to me. Persevere: the alternative comes right at the end and will make you chuckle!

After the Nonsense Rhymes the programme returns to serious matters with The Triumph of Love, sung by James Way. These are settings of sonnets by Stanford’s cousin, Edward Gore Alexander Holmes (1850-1936). In the booklet Jeremy Dibble explains how Holmes won Stanford’s lasting gratitude for his assistance in a matter of the heart. He credits my MusicWeb colleague and Stanford aficionado, Christopher Howell with the suggestion that Stanford marked his own silver wedding anniversary in 1903 by setting these Holmes sonnets. To be truthful, the poems aren’t the greatest poetry but they clearly inspired Stanford and his settings are very fine.

‘O one deep sacred outlet of my soul’ opens the set. It’s a big song for both singer and pianist. James Way sings it ardently. By contrast, ‘Like as the thrush in winter’ is graceful and charming. At the heart of the set is ‘When in the solemn stillness of the night’. This is an expressive, expansive song which rises from an initial quietly serious opening and expands into ardour. ‘I think that we were children’ presents another contrast. Here, the music is light-textured. It’s also innocent in tone yet musically sophisticated. The song achieves a quiet, expressive ending. Finally, ‘O flames of passion’ is an urgent song, the urgency emphasised by the use of a minor key. Near the end, at the words ‘lit by love’s purest breath’ Stanford switches to the major, transforming the song as it comes to an exultant close. Holmes’ poetry is somewhat overheated but Stanford’s music is another matter. These are notable songs and they receive splendid advocacy from James Way and Andrew West.

Almost all of the songs on this splendid disc were new to me. As such, the programme has expanded further my knowledge and appreciation of Stanford’s music. The performances are exemplary and there’s a great deal of fine music to enjoy.

Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor has recorded the music excellently; he has achieved an excellent balance between voice and piano. The informative notes are written by the Stanford authority par excellence, Jeremy Dibble. All the sung texts are provided, though you are likely to find you won’t need to follow them slavishly since both singers have excellent diction. There’s just one oddity in the booklet. You may fear that the text of ‘Barkerolle’ has been omitted from the Nonsense Rhymes: it hasn’t; it appears out of order on the next page.

I’d count this CD as a significant addition to the Stanford discography. I noted at the start of this review how many songs this composer wrote. Might SOMM and these artists be prevailed upon to give us an encore album?

John Quinn

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