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Stanford songs v2 C00608

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
To Send My Vessel Sailing on Beyond: Songs Volume 2
Songs of Faith, Op. 97 (1906)
A Child’s Garland of Songs, Op. 30 (publ. 1892)
Songs of a Roving Celt, Op. 157 (1918)
Four Patriotic Songs (publ. 1917-1918)
A Carol of Bells (1915)
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2022, Studios of Griffa E Figli, Milan, Italy

Like London buses, recordings of Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Child’s Garland of Songs come along in twos. It seems barely a few weeks ago that I reviewed this work. It was part of a superb programme performed by mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, baritone Gareth Brynmor John and pianist Susie Allan. On that recording of the Child’s Garland, some numbers are sung by the baritone and some by the mezzo-soprano, and three are two part duets. Here, mezzo-soprano Elisabetta Paglia sings the mall.

The key to understanding and enjoying these songs is to realise that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Child’s Garden of Verse from the perspective of the child, not the adult – but there is nothing childish about the words or the music. To be sure, both the composer and the poet may be reflecting on times when they both were youngsters. I have remarked before that the sentiments of these poems may not be shared or understood by the “Wiser Youngsters of Today” (Introductory Poem to Treasure Island). In fact, one poem, Distant Lands must need carry a trigger warning in school and university classrooms. The songs are straightforward, but never condescending. They cover a wide range of one-time child interests: pirate stories, windy nights, travel to foreign lands and sailing ships. I am glad that I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to appreciate both the music and the texts of this cycle. The performances here are flawless.

The Songs of Faith were published in 1908 in two sets, Tennyson and Whitman, and written between May and December 1906. These are strong advocates of belief, but not dogmatic or doctrinaire. In fact, they represent a typically healthy Anglican agnosticism. The opening number, Strong Son of God, is taken from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. It very much emphasises this sceptical mood where the poet “believes where we cannot prove”. Only by the notion that God made man “He thinks he was not made to die”. This is a strong setting with a complex accompaniment. God and the Universe counterpoises the vastness of the Cosmos and the insignificance of the individual soul. This dark setting emphasises doubt, eventually conquered by recognition of God’s purposes in the optimistic ending. Faith meditates on what for many is the main obstacle to belief: the existence of pain and disaster. This powerful dramatic song ultimately resolves the contradiction of his doubt.

The first of the Walt Whitman settings is To the Soul, the text of which was published in his Leaves of Grass. It is well known from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s choral piece Towards the Unknown Region, first performed in 1907. Stanford’s take is restrained in its intensely chromatic exposition. Once again, the conclusion “Then we burst forth – we float, In Time and Space” has a confident effect. Stanford scholar Jeremy Dibble described Tears as a “scena” rather than a song. Certainly, Stanford uses wide-ranging musical material to create the contrast between “the tempestuous tears of the night” and the “calm of the day” (Michael Pilkington, English Solo Song: Guide to the Repertoire, Parry and Stanford). The last song, Joy, Shipmate, Joy, majors on the idea that death is a release and the beginning of a new life. Therefore death should not be feared. The piano part rolls like the sea bearing the ship to its final harbour. (In what is probably a typo, the sleeve notes state that this work was recorded on 24 November 1918.)

I enjoyed the Songs of a Roving Celt. This cycle reflects on the progress to the homeland of a Scotsman who has lost his friend at sea. As it was composed around 1918, it clearly “touched a chord” with the public, many of whom were in a comparable situation. It would be easy for the more sophisticated reader in 2022 to mock the sentiment of the verse of Murdoch Maclean. The opening song The Pibroch reminds the listener that the music of the bagpipe can express a myriad of emotion – from “ancient pride” to a “dirge of men that died” and “haunting fears” to “parting tears”. It is a call to return to the native heath. Musically, Stanford has created an effective set of variations to express the wide-ranging sentiment of the text. It is little wonder that this became a popular song.

The second number, Assynt of the Shadows, suggests that the poet’s companion has been buried at sea, off the coast of Scotland. The dark setting underscores his tragic loss. Howell says that The Sobbing of the Spey is as near to writing a sentimental ballad as Stanford ever got. Part recitative, part melody, it suggests that Scotsmen, whether at home or abroad, never forget “their own romantic river” or hear “that homeland call”. No More is a passionate reflection on the fact that the poet’s friend will never see the “dawning skies” of Morven again. There is a beautifully wrought “middle eight” where the poet looks as “the gloaming fades in the West” and the “bee is homing to its long rest”. The final song, The Call, is a lovely evocation of the poet’s return to his beloved Isle of Skye, and a sense of loss that his companion is not with him.

The liner notes explain that the Four Patriotic Songs were not penned or originally published as a group, but for this recording they have been gathered and performed as a set. Written during the Great War, they present a thoughtful, rather than tub-thumping or (too) jingoistic, appreciation of the Four Nations of the United Kingdom. All are to texts by the Cheshire-born poet Cicely Fox Smith. St George of England is first up. Here the Patron Saint has given the dragon a break and is fighting the foe in Flanders. When this enemy is laid low, he will return to England to rest “where the golden willows blow”. This is followed by the melancholy The Fair Hills of Ireland, which St Patrick had blessed because “he loved them so”. Turning his attention to Scotland, St Andrew’s Land is a charming parody. Textually, Fox was skilful at “mimicking Scottish and English dialect forms”. Here “the braes are fair” and the “glens are bonnie” seems to represent an idyll of all that “we were fighting for”. Wales for Ever quotes Men of Harlech and alludes to the folksongs Bells of Aberdovey and All Through the Night.

As a pendant to these Patriotic Songs, the disc closes with the compelling and largely timeless A Carol of Bells which sets a longish poem by Louis N. Parker. The idea is that the Christmas Bells of London salute the fallen (collapsed/destroyed) bells of Flanders, and by implication the fallen men. Listen in Oranges and Lemons for the chimes of Big Ben and God Save the King. The carillon-like piano accompaniment completely matches the text. One would have to be particularly hard-hearted not to shed a tear, despite some of the politically incorrect sentiment.

Elisabetta Paglia’s singing is thoroughly enjoyable. I noted in my review of volume 1 of this cycle that she has a notable resumé, with many operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Cosi 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. Clearly this talented singer is comfortable with diverse material from the 17th century onwards. Her approach to Stanford is a perfect complement to this varied repertoire from the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian era.

Equally impressive is Christopher Howell’s contribution. Not only does he provide sympathetic accompaniments, but he has been the driving force behind this project. Like in volume 1, his booklet notes are ideal. As always, he gives a detailed introduction to all the songs. This includes the basic information and interesting commentary. More details can be gleaned from the ever-growing collection of his Stanfordian Thoughts published on a regular basis on MusicWeb International. A running index is kept at the foot of each PDF file; the latest is here on page 5.

It is disappointing that, like in volume 1, there were no texts – but they are nearly all available at the invaluable Lieder Text Site maintained by Emily Ezust. This is not convenient: the listener must do some preparation. That said, Howell’s Stanfordian Thoughts devoted to each song cycle include a selection of the words interspersed with interpretation.

I relished the second volume of Stanford’s songs. There is much here to inspire, entertain, amuse and move. I recommend listening in small doses, perhaps one cycle a sitting. To me, nothing palls more that listening to 25 songs without a break. The singing, the recording and the documentation are perfect. It is to be hoped that further volumes will appear in the coming months.

John France

Published: October 14, 2022

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