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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Overture in the style of a tragedy, Op.90 (1903) [8.56]
Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue, Op.151 (1918) [16.42]
A Welcome March, Op.87 (1903) ]5.24]
Fairy Day, Op.131 (1912) [18.41]
A Song of Agincourt, Op.168 (1918, revised 1919) [15.49]
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley
rec. 2018, Ulster Hall, Belfast
Text of Op.131 included in booklet
HYPERION CDA 68283 [CD: 65.32]

2019 has been a year of plenty for the music of Stanford, with the first-ever complete performance of his Missa Via Victrix emerging on a Lyrita CD earlier this year and now a whole collection of almost totally unknown works on this Hyperion disc. I say “almost” unknown because, unlike the mass, there seem to have been a few isolated performances of most of these pieces during the composer’s lifetime; but two of them had to wait until the current century for their premières, and although Hyperion with commendable caution do not claim any of the recordings as “first” I do not think we have heard any of them before – whether on LP, tape or CD – although some have emerged as BBC broadcasts.

The longest single work on this disc lasts nearly twenty minutes, Fairy Day being a set of three choral settings of some embarrassingly twee poetry by William Allingham (1824-89). The latter is known today (if at all) for his nursery-rhyme-like “Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen” which at one time used to appear in books of poetry for children; but the three verses set here surpass even that doggerel for nauseous sentimentality: “springlets, brooklets, greeny nooklets” begins the last verse of Fairy Dawn. It is no surprise that Victor Harris of the St Cecilia Society of New York, who appears to have commissioned these settings, apparently declined to perform the results, leaving the first performance of the orchestral version to the Ulster Orchestra under Howard Shelley in 2011.

But there is nevertheless a hidden gem concealed in these settings, in the shape of the central slow movement Fairy Noon where Stanford reduces his treatment of the words to a slow choral background over which woodwind solos unfold in an atmosphere that positively reeks of Delius at his idyllic summer best. At times I was reminded of the noon-tide rhapsody in A Mass of Life, and although the final movement Fairy Night with its lullaby and scherzo-like interludes has charm this central impression is something quite special. The choir seems on the small side – the 2011 performance featured the larger Ulster Youth Choir – and Kerry Stamp in her solo passages tends to recede behind the orchestra, but even so this piece does not deserve its long neglect.

The other piece on this disc which struck my particular attention was the solemn march from Verdun, an orchestration of the last two movements of Stanford’s second organ sonata. This movement, impressive enough in its original organ version, gains real weight and momentum from the thudding percussion and slow-moving brass in its opening and closing sections; and although the central interlude, with its references to the Marseillaise, has a more martial air which strikes a slightly jarring note, the solemn conclusion has a sense of peace and reconciliation which breathes a positively Elgarian sense of regret. Unfortunately the ‘heroic epilogue’ which succeeds it, a symphonic treatment of the Marseillaise at some considerable length, does not avoid a sense of bombast; and although Jeremy Dibble’s booklet note talks of an “instrumental panoply to rival that of Berlioz”, Stanford’s treatment of the melody does not have the sheer sense of revolutionary fervour that his French predecessor conjured up so successfully.

Similarly Stanford’s attempt to rival Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance in his Welcome March written for the visit to Ireland by Edward VII in 1903 flounders, this time on Stanford’s inability to provide a solidly Elgarian tune to match his model. The central pentatonic melody never really gets off the ground, and the occasional snatches of Irish folksong in the rumbustious outer sections sound contrived. The Overture in the style of a tragedy written in the same year similarly shows Stanford running on something that sounds very suspiciously like auto-pilot, going through the symphonic motions without finding anything very profound to say – despite what Jeremy Dibble identifies as a reference to his incidental music to Oedipus Rex in the final bars. It may suggest that the composer himself had doubts about the work that he never seems to have sought its performance during his lifetime, and it had to wait until 2010 for its first public appearance.

The final item on this disc, A Song of Agincourt, is much more impressive: a full-scale symphonic rhapsody based on the mediaeval carol somewhat in the style of Stanford’s earlier Irish rhapsodies. After an initial prelude presenting fragments of the theme, the Agincourt Hymn is presented in full orchestral guise although curiously shorn of its concluding counterpoint to the words “Deo gracias” (and Walton gets more sheer excitement out of the melody in his Henry V film music). It is then developed in a series of variations, and combined with an original Stanford march and a more considered lyrical interlude. When the theme returns at the end we appear to be heading for a final peroration, but it is the lyrical material which brings the work to and end in a manner that reflects its dedication to those members of the Royal College of Music who died for their country in the First World War. As such the music forms a valuable adjunct to the Missa Via Victrix which we heard for the first time last year; and indeed it brings a sense of solemnity which rises very far above the workaday.

The performances are generally excellent, although I might have welcomed a slightly more deliberate approach to the Verdun solemn march (which is marked “Adagio molto”). There are places, too, where I might have welcomed a greater weight to the string sound in particular – an extra desk to each section, perhaps – since although the playing is agile and energetic it could have challenged the wind players in the larger-scale writing with greater force. But the balance the engineers have obtained in the Ulster Hall is clean and precise, and although the diction of the choir in Fairy Day is done no favours by their backward balance we might perhaps be grateful for the fact that Allingham’s words are not clearer. They are provided in the booklet for those of a suitably hardened disposition. Jeremy Dibble provides four pages of detailed description (in English only) which are of great assistance in following Stanford’s more academic harmonic procedures. The cover illustration by Burne-Jones is particularly felicitous, too.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ John Quinn

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