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Songs Vol. 2.
Stephen Varcoe: baritone, Clifford Benson: piano.
Hyperion CDA67124 77m DDD.

Tragodie op.14 No.5. The Clown's Songs from 'Twelth Night op.65 - O mistress mine / Come away Death / The rain it raineth every day. The Pibroch op.157 No.1. Phoebe op.125 No.3. Songs Songs of the Sea op.91 - Drake's Drum / Outward Bound / Devon O Devon in wind and rain / Homeward Bound / The 'Old Superb'. For ever mine. Windy Nights op.30 No.4. A Lullaby op.19 No.2. To the Rose op.19 No.3. Songs of faith Set 2- To the Soul op.97 No.4 / Joy shipmate joy! Op.97 No.6. The Fairy Lough op.77 No.2. Tom Lemmin. A Fire of Turf op.139 - A Fire of Turf / The Chapel on the Hill / Cowslip Time / Scared / Blackberry Time / The Fair / The west Wind.        
Crotchet  Amazon UK 

In my comments on the first volume of this series I noted that the songs chosen were mostly very early or very late works. Now we have a good representation of the strength and variety of the central, most important, part of Stanford's career. Here, too, I am happy to find a song I did not know, the unpublished Tom Leminn. It is a curious, sardonic piece, not really paralleled elsewhere in Stanford.

Certain strictures I made about the performances on the previous CD can be partly modified now. Benson still splits too many chords, but you get used to that, and Varcoe still forsakes the virtues of a well-supported tone (which is impressive when he uses it, as in the climaxes of Come away,death) for a gentle crooning. However, while before the results were often husky and insecure, here he seems much more in control. Whether his extreme pianissimos in Outward Bound would reach the back of a concert hall I do not know, but as heard here the emission is beautifully steady, the line finely drawn.

Now to some queries and grouses. I never thought I would have to pick Jeremy Dibble up on a matter of Stanfordian fact but I have to point out that A Child's Garland of Songs, in the original Longman edition of 1892 (I have a copy in front of me as I write), consists entirely of solo songs. It was for the 1914 Curwen edition that Stanford arranged three of the pieces for two-part chorus and made rather fidgety revisions to several others (including Windy Nights), specifying them as unison songs; the opposite of the situation described by Dibble. I prefer Windy Nights as it was originally but cannot deny that Stanford's final thoughts were the Curwen version used here.

Regarding the interpretation of Tragödie perhaps a Heine expert should be brought in but I have always felt, and on balance still do, that the couple described in the last section is not, pace Dibble, the one in the first part, since I believe they die in the middle and what we have at the end is another prize pair doing exactly the same thing. This would appear to be the sense of both the English title The Tragedy of Life and of Stanford's postlude which quotes the opening call to flight.

A few textual emendations call for explanation. On the penultimate page of The West Wind (Oh, wild wind from the distant west) the vocal line has been altered, perhaps to its advantage, but it would be nice to know on what authority.

At the end of the fourth stanza of To the Soul Whitman's words as they appear in the printed score are nor any bounds bound us, and so they were sung by Christopher Maltman in the orchestral version, also under Dibble's editorship (Hyperion CDA 67065). In my copy of Leaves of Grass the words are nor any bounds bounding us and the music here has been "corrected" to incorporate that reading. Since Leaves of Grass was revised many times I would suggest that Stanford set correctly the edition he had and that it would have been better not to tamper.

Just after this, at We float, In Time and Space, there is an important piano marking in the piano part. Reference to the orchestral version shows that Stanford wanted a real change of colour here. If correctly observed the effect of the voice continuing forte while the piano all but disappears is extraordinary - the voice really does seem to float in time and space. Unfortunately, Benson here ploughs on at a relentless forte. This is a real misrepresentation of the music.

These performances often amend Stanford's tempo markings to no good purpose. Dibble's notes state that "O mistress mine, often portrayed as capricious and whimsical … is here given an alternative reading as a rueful meditation on the passing of youth." But the marking is allegretto con moto (this seems andante or less) and observance of it would show the "rueful meditation" to be Varcoe's and Benson's, not Stanford's. This Shakespeare group marks perhaps the interpretative low-point of the disc. In Come away, death Benson lengthens his upbeat quaver chords in the introduction and shortens his dotted quaver rests when the singer has entered, to the extent that I had to get out the score to remind myself of what Stanford had really written. Unfortunately, not all listeners will have a score handy. And finally, the vigorous, bracing treatment of The rain it raineth every day hardly ties with Stanford's moderato e leggiero. The piece assumes more poignancy at a slower tempo. Also, Varcoe's semiquavers are badly aspirated and the final piano flourish should surely not be pedalled.

Another casualty is Blackberry Time. It is attractive enough in a bluff, hearty sort of way, but where is the "physical fatigue" that Plunket Greene found in it? Turn to the old Hyperion LP by Griffett and Benson and you will find poetry of a different order. A proper observance of Stanford's non troppo mosso is only the starting point; they have really understood that this is a song about weariness to which memory has brought enchantment. Since the Griffett LPs were generally unsatisfactory it is nice to report that they contain at least one performance to cherish.

Over Scared I have some sympathy with the performers since this is an embarrassingly silly poem which Stanford does nothing to mitigate. Getting it over as quickly as possible is an understandable solution but an observance of Stanford's Lento might have produced at least some atmosphere.

Scared brings me to one of two queries I have over the repertoire chosen. Although A Fire of Turf, from which it comes, contains some fine numbers it seems strange that it was selected, as a complete Irish cycle, in preference to the musically richer Irish Idyll (which is at least available elsewhere) or Cushendall (which is not). However, the postlude, exquisitely played by Benson, is so beautiful as to silence criticism.

My other query is whether it was necessary to give up over 17 minutes to Songs of the Sea with piano accompaniment when modern versions with orchestra by Allen and Luxon exist. The conviction both performers bring to Drake's Drum is its own justification (less so that of The Old Superb where Benson's enthusiasm often causes him to forge ahead of the singer). But turn to either orchestral version and the gain in colour is evident. If you want to hear at last a really firm, well-supported voice throughout its range and crystal-clear diction, though, you'll have to go back to the old Peter Dawson recording (once available on World Record Club). Or will you? When I want to listen to Drake's Drum and The Old Superb (only these two, alas) for sheer pleasure, I get out an old Saga LP by the young John Shirley-Quirk. Here it matters not a jot that the accompaniment is piano only (and dimly recorded at that); here is a glorious voice in its first prime with faultless technique and a way of communicating words beside which even Dawson seems too buttoned up. This disc should be reissued - it also contains the best ever Songs of Travel.

Before leaving Songs of the Sea, I must say that performances of Homeward Bound seem to be getting slower and slower. Is the enchanted, rarefied Debussyian atmosphere Varcoe and Benson find in it, however convincing in itself, what Stanford wanted? The two modern orchestral versions have a little more movement, but go back to Dawson, with Leeds Festival forces only a generation younger than those that had premièred the work under Stanford's baton, and the piece assumes an easy flow (the un-named conductor surely beat in two rather than six) yet there is no sense of haste. This is surely the "authentic" version, though an attempt to find depths in Stanford unknown to his contemporaries (as we do today with Mahler or Elgar) may not be fruitless.

Although most of the songs here are very rare, there are a few others for which at least some interpretative tradition exists. The Pibroch is largely successful but older singers knew how to extract a poetry from the word afar which is not hinted at here. And finally The Fairy Lough. It is tempting to take it very slowly, as Varcoe and Benson do, since for much of the time its poetic atmosphere seems to gain. But your moths won't flit and your fairy horsemen won't get their hoofs of the ground. The Griffett performance, not to speak of the classic Ferrier, finds a more convincing tempo, and both shave more than half a minute off Varcoe's timing.

If all this seems very negative the successes still considerably outweigh the failures. Stanford is shown to be a major European songwriter and that is the main thing. Go and buy, but don't think the whole story is here.

Christopher Howell

Reviews from previous months

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