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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
For lo, I raise up, Op 145 (1914) [8:05]
Te Deum in C, Op 115 (1909, orch 1910) [7:45]
Three Motets, Op. 38
Justorum animae [3:25]
Caelos ascendit hodie [1:59]
Beati quorum via [3:39]
Lighten our darkness (1918) [3:48]
Benedictus in C, Op 115 (1909) [5:31]
O for a closer walk with God, Op 113, No 6b [3:35]
Jubilate in C, Op 115 (1909) [3:34]
Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat, Op 164 (1918) [11:51]
Fantasia and Toccata in D minor, Op 57(1894) [12:14]
Eternal Father, Op 135, No 2 (1913) [6:29]
St Patrick’s Breastplate (1912) [9:13]
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge/Stephen Layton
Trinity Brass
Owain Park & Alexander Hamilton (organ)
rec. June 2016, Hereford Cathedral; July 2016, Trinity College Chapel (unaccompanied items)
Texts included
HYPERION CDA68174 [81:02]

It’s more than fitting that this disc of Stanford’s church music should feature the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge for Stanford was one of Stephen Layton’s predecessors, serving as organist of the College from 1873 to 1892. Indeed, it was during his period of association with Trinity that Stanford’s reputation was made, though his increasing eminence was by no means due entirely to his work at the College.

In fact, almost all the music selected by Stephen Layton was composed after Stanford had relinquished his post at Trinity. The exception is the set of Three Motets. I’m not sure of the exact date of composition of each of these motets but in his notes the Stanford expert, Jeremy Dibble cites evidence from the college’s own records that Justorum animae was sung at least twice at services in the chapel, in 1888 and again in 1892. Moreover, he says, in 1891 Stanford was in correspondence with Novello about possible publication and requested the return of the scores as soon as possible because “we use them pretty frequently”. That’s scarcely surprising because these three gems would grace the repertoire of any choir. Justorum animae is wonderful musical response to the celebrated lines from the Book of Wisdom. Caelos ascendit hodie is jubilantly performed by Layton and his choir; the dotted rhythms associated with the recurring “Alleluia” really cut through the texture and impel the music forward. Layton imparts a beautiful flow to the serene Beati quorum via. It’s moving to hear such a fine account of these motets recorded in the very chapel where they were first heard under the composer’s direction.

Disappointingly, Stanford’s concert music is too infrequently heard these days, other than on disc, even though much of it is of high quality. Church choirs, however, have continued to appreciate the worth of his liturgical music and such pieces as ‘Stanford in C’ are repertoire staples. Though the canticles that he wrote for Evensong are classics of the genre I’m glad that Stephen Layton has selected instead the Morning Canticles because as choral Matins becomes less frequently celebrated in the Anglican church there’s a danger of these fine pieces suffering neglect. Moreover, Layton gives us the Te Deum in Stanford’s own 1910 arrangement which enriched the organ accompaniment through the addition of brass and timpani. This is the first recording of this version. It’s a splendid setting of the Te Deum in any case but the brass really adds to the majesty of the music. The present performance is a very fine one, the sound resonating in the spacious acoustic of Hereford Cathedral in a most satisfying way. The quieter passages also come off very well. It was intelligent to separate the Benedictus and Jubilate from the Te Deum since for those companion pieces Stanford retained the original organ accompaniment. The Benedictus is an impressive piece in which the more reflective section (“And thou, child, shall be called the Prophet of the Highest”) is elegantly done. The doxology is fervent. We get a second – and welcome – chance to hear the music for the doxology at the end of the Jubilate. That piece is here given a suitably joyful performance.

Lighten our darkness is performed in a new edition by Jeremy Dibble and I infer from the notes that the piece may not have been previously published. It’s a setting for choir and organ of the familiar third (and final) collect for Evensong. I don’t recall hearing this piece before and I must say it surprised me. When I’ve heard the collect said or chanted at Evensong it’s always seemed to me to be a fairly calm prayer for Divine protection. However, Stanford’s music seems to take its cue from the reference to ”all perils and dangers of this night” and the music is often powerful. In all probability that reflects the fact that the piece was written a few months before the end of World War I. It’s a fine piece, not least the lovely yet fervent conclusion. I suppose the fact that it’s lain unpublished will not have helped its cause but I hope it will now become better known.

From the other end of the Great War comes For lo, I raise up, a bold and dramatic setting of words from the Book of Habakkuk. The opening of this piece is truly arresting and the performance generates genuine tension. This is music clearly written in the shadow of war. Later, though, at the words “We shall not die” the music acquires a sense of hope which persists through to the end. Surprisingly, this impressive piece was not published until 1939, by which time Europe was being plunged into conflict a second time.

The Magnificat, which is set in Latin, was designed as a tribute and peace offering to Parry. The two composers fell out badly in 1917 and though a reconciliation was effected damage had been done. Stanford’s Magnificat was intended as a gesture of affection and remorse but though the piece was finished in September 1918 Parry died before it could be published and Stanford was obliged instead to dedicate it to his friend’s memory. The piece is for unaccompanied double choir and the vigorous contrapuntal opening material is highly reminiscent of Bach. So too is the fact that the opening material is recapitulated at the end for the doxology, just as Bach did in his own setting of the canticle. Indeed, the influence and spirit of Bach can be detected quite often during the piece. However, Stanford’s Magnificat is no mere Bachian pastiche; it’s a remarkably skilled and varied setting by a composer who had an intuitive feel for choral composition. The present performance is an expert one, full of commitment.

The shadow of Bach also hovers beneficently over an earlier composition, the Fantasia and Toccata in D minor for organ. The regal opening of the Fantasia is very imposing in the acoustic of Hereford Cathedral and Owain Park exploits every facet of the ‘Father’ Willis organ to great effect during this performance. It’s interesting to hear the music played on this organ since piece and instrument are almost contemporaneous: the organ was installed in 1892, two years before Stanford wrote this piece. After the grandeur of the Fantasia, the Toccata is athletic and builds to a majestic conclusion. Owain Park’s performance of the Fantasia and Toccata is absolutely splendid.

Eternal Father is one of the three English Motets for a cappella choir. The words are by Robert Bridges. Here Stanford’s level of inspiration is comparable to that of Parry in his equally masterly Songs of Farewell written just a few years later. Stephen Layton and his very fine choir present a performance in which the singing is beautifully calibrated and balanced. The singing brings out the poetry in Stanford’s music, especially in the closing section (starting at “By Thee in paths of peace Thy sheep be led”); here the music is glowing.

Finally, we hear Stanford’s arrangement of the old Irish tune St Patrick, setting words attributed to the patron saint of Ireland. The first version, for choir and organ, was made in 1912 but the present performance uses Stanford’s 1913 elaboration in which he added brass and percussion, albeit these are used in a fairly restrained fashion. It’s a long strophic poem but Stanford varies his forces so that there’s no danger of the setting becoming repetitious. Towards the end, the penultimate verse (“Christ be with me, Christ within me”) is set to a completely different tune, Gartan. The contrast with the main tune is welcome; it comes at a suitable juncture in the text and the diversion to another melody for a short while does not jar.

This is an extremely fine disc. The Trinity College choir has a well-deserved reputation as a top-rank ensemble and this new addition to their discography is absolutely up to the standards we have come to expect. The technical side of the proceedings was in the expert hands of engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock. They have produced excellent results in each of the two very different acoustics. Jeremy Dibble’s notes reflect his deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for Stanford’s music. These are performances which show why Stanford’s reputation as a composer of excellent liturgical music is so deservedly secure.

John Quinn

 




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