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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) Love’s White Flame
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy, 27 October & 24 November 2018 DA VINCI CLASSICS C00304 [65:50]
It is astonishing that there have been no complete recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs. In 2000, Hyperion Records made a brave attempt with their remarkable two volumes (CDA 67123, CDA 67124) featuring Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson. Hyperion had also issued in 1982 an LP Stanford: Songs from the Elfin Pedlar (A66058); tenor James Griffett was accompanied once again by Clifford Benson in a selection of Stanford’s Irish folk arrangements, and several original songs including The Fairy Lough, The Bold Unbiddable Child and The Monkey’s Carol. I have not heard that album, and it seems not to have been reissued as a CD or a download. Several Stanford songs were included in compilations and recitals by singers as talented as Kathleen Ferrier and John Shirley-Quirk. Interestingly, SOMM will release in mid-January 2020 a new recording of Stanford Songs (SOMMCD 0627); baritone Roderick Williams and tenor James Way are accompanied by Andrew West. The SOMM issue shares The Triumph of Love with the present CD.
Stanford’s song catalogue runs to several pages; Christopher Howell’s liner notes consider its extent. Much depends on what is counted. It is reckoned that there are some 200 art songs and approximately 300 folksongs which were also intended for the recital room. Many of the latter were Irish songs, but also included several French melodies and a German tune.
I will not comment on every number on this disc, just offer a few thoughts. For me, the major work here is the Five Sonnets from The Triumph of Love
Op. 82 from 1903. These are setting of poems by the educationalist, writer and poet Edmond Holmes (1850-1936). The booklet explains the poems’ complex background, referring to the author’s rather individual theological syncretism. On the other hand, this collection may have been written for Stanford’s 25th wedding anniversary; it remains a debatable conceit. I find these symphonically conceived songs moving and powerful but I do not need an esoteric underpinning to enjoy. The text is a little overblown but the bottom line is Amor vincit omnia: love conquers all.
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar Op. 72 from 1898 is a song cycle with a story. The narrative – somewhat unpalatable to modern minds – involves extravagant Roman Catholic superstition about Our Lady’s role in the lives and deaths of individuals. It is fair to wonder why the Protestant Stanford chose to set it. Yet this is another story of love reaching beyond death, and it is a beautifully realised setting of Heine’s verses. Perhaps this is a lesson to us all: mythological narrative can powerfully express deeper truths, irrespective of source.
Only two of the 1911 Four Songs Op. 125 have been included here, those whose subject matter is suitable for a female singer. The songs were originally written for Dame Clara Butt and her husband, baritone Kennerley Rumford. The liner notes state that songs are “too disparate to be called a cycle”. The soprano has a Shelley setting, and an Irish idyll by Winifred Letts (1882-1972), “melodious songs of the superior ballad type” (Porte, 1921). (The two not recorded here are Phoebe by Thomas Lodge, and Shelley’s The Song of the Spirit of the House.)
Other songs on this album include Stanford’s only setting of Burns’s Dainty Davie –sung with an Irish accent! The Corsican Dirge is exactly that. Elizabeth Barratt Browning’s May’s Love is operatic in effect but effective all the same. The earliest piece here is Keats’s La Belle Dame sans Merci composed in 1877. It is a significant, if somewhat melodramatic, song with lots of variation of the “bardic melody” and an orchestrally conceived piano part.
Christopher Howell’s excellent liner notes have much helpful information about the song cycles and the individual numbers. It is a disappointment to see no texts in the booklet. They are all available in the invaluable
LiederNet archive maintained by Emily Ezust, but this is awkward insofar as one needs some organisation to follow the text when listening.
I enjoyed Elisabetta Paglia’s performance of all these songs. She has a rich and beguiling voice. Occasionally her pronunciation is a touch idiosyncratic (“doth” should be sung “duhth”), and now and again the words in this recoding are just a little bit indistinct, at least to my aging ears. She has a notable CV, with many operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Così fan tutte, Siébel in Gounod’s Faust and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. She has sung the solo part in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and Gloria. She has a wide-ranging repertoire, from the 18th century to the present.
One sometimes forgets the contribution of the accompanist in recitals. Here, Christopher Howell’s playing is of the highest standard. His deep scholarly knowledge is essential to the realisation of this album. His other important projects include Stanford’s complete piano music, as well as violin and piano works. The two soloists worked together on the enjoyable My Heart is Like a Singing Bird: Song settings of poetry by Christina Rossetti issued in 2013 (Sheva Records SH076 – review).
I had hoped that the Varcoe/Benson recordings would become a complete survey but that was not to happen. I wonder if Christopher Howell’s venture will expand to cover all bases. Clearly, he would have to include a male voice in the list of performers. I understand that several tracks for a second volume have been laid down, and that there may be plans for a third. A look at catalogue suggests that many volumes will be required if all the songs, both art and folk, are to receive a recording.
This remarkable disc has the potential to provide the first complete cycle of Charles Villiers Stanford’s songs, a major element of British/Irish songwriting. Such a cycle deserves success. I can honestly say that I have rarely heard a song of Stanford’s that I have not relished.
Five Sonnets from The Triumph of Love Op.82 (1903) [16:30]
1. O one deep sacred outlet of my soul [2:32]
2. Like as the thrush in winter [3:44]
3. When in the solemn stillness of the night [4:27]
4. I think that we were children [2:58]
5. O flames of passion [2:41]
Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar Op.72 (1898) [14:26]
1. Am Fenster stand die Mutter [3:47]
2. Die Mutter-Gottes zu Kevlaar [5:50]
3. Der kranke Sohn und die Mutter [4:44]
Four Songs Op.125 (1911) [7:37]
1. The Song of Asia [4:48]
2. John Kelly [2:49] Dainty Davie (1905) [2:29] A Corsican Dirge (1892) [6:29] May’s Love (c.1884) [2:59] A Japanese Lullaby (1918) [3:48] The Linnet (1902) [2:22] Der Kukkuk (German folk song arr. Stanford) (1908) [1:00] La Belle Dame sans Merci (1877) [5:32] The Calico Dress (1896) [2:48]