Stanford Choral Music

Charles Villiers Stanford: Choral Music (CR027)

Review by MusicWeb International

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This new selection of anthems and canticles by Charles Villiers Stanford is thoroughly enjoyable. It includes three premiere recordings, although what these are, is not stated on the liner-notes or track-listings – at least I could not find this information.

Fortunately, the Stanford Society posts details of them on its website (accessed 23 December 2015).

Two sections are given from the well-known Service in C major, op.115 which was composed in 1909: it was to be Stanford’s last major setting of the Morning, Communion and Evening Canticles. The liner-notes point out that this is ‘his most cohesive attempt in terms of thematic concentration and cyclic unity’. It is an impressive setting, and the Morning Canticles: Benedictus and Te Deum are an ideal place to begin exploration of this CD.

I have long appreciated the Three Motets, op.38 dating from 1905, although they were composed earlier. Like many of Stanford’s anthems and part-songs these are perfectly formed. The first, Justorum animae (The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God) balances the notion of peace with the Lord, against the ‘torment of malice’ of the middle section. Coelos ascendit hodie (Today, Jesus Christ has ascended into the heavens) utilises a double choir with exciting antiphonal exchanges. The final motet Beati quorum via (Blessed are those that are undefiled) is again reflective and meditative in its effect. I would have preferred them to have been grouped together on this CD as they are most effective when heard in order.

The arrangement by Philip Moore of ‘Watts’ Cradle Song’, for SATB is particularly beautiful. This music was originally used in the ‘Lullaby’ (Thomas Dekker) published by Stanford in ‘Six Songs’ op.19, no.2 written in 1892 for soloist and piano. This is its premiere recording.

Stanford’s setting of the words ‘For Lo, I raise up’, op.145 from the Old Testament book of Habakkuk is truly prophetic. It was composed in 1914 and prefigured the horrors of the coming Great War with its mechanized warfare. This is powerful and sometimes frightening music that provides a contrast between the belligerent element of human nature and the more peaceful sanctuary of the Lord’s holy temple. It is an inspired work that serves as a miniature epitome of the human condition and a particular theological response to it.

‘Engleberg’ was composed for William Walsham How’s fine hymn ‘For all the Saints’, and published in the 1904 edition of Hymns: Ancient and Modern. On this disc it is paired with the words ‘When, in our music, God is glorified’ (Fred Pratt Green, 1971). This is a good strong tune that deserves to be used more often.

‘A Song of Wisdom: I came forth’ from the ‘Bible Songs & Six Hymns’, op.113 composed in 1910 owes much to Dvorak’s Biblical Songs. This present number is a theological discussion about the nature and virtue of personified Wisdom as expounded in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus. It is followed by its ‘paired hymn’, ‘O for a closer walk with God’.

The anthem, ‘Come, ye thankful people, come’ was written for Harvest-tide. ‘If ye then be risen with Christ’ was composed in 1883 and is another example of Stanford ‘exploring a new symphonic prose prophetic of [his] … later masterpieces.’ (Dibble, Stanford: The Man & his Music, 2002 – review). Both are first recordings.

The setting of ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, has been described by Herbert Howells as being ‘one of the supremely lovely anthems of all our history.’ It is a good example of Stanford musically expounding the text in a varied and satisfying manner.

Psalm 150, ‘O Praise God in his holiness’, is a fine illustration of an Anglican chant that typifies the genre.

I was most disappointed by the CD booklet. I think that its designer has allowed artistic ambition to defeat utility. For example, the opening page has white on orange. Details of the artists are white and grey text on black background. Generally the font is small and unclear. The pages are formatted in two, three and four columns. I accept that my aging sight is partially to blame, but feel it is important to make this element of the CD package as user-friendly as possible, allowing especially for people suffering from colour-blindness. If design considerations trump legibility, the record company ought to make a .pdf file available in clear black and white text.

I would have preferred if the track-listings had presented the full details of opus numbers and dates, rather than having to search through the difficult-to-read liner notes. On a more positive matter, these programme notes by Jeremy Dibble are detailed and interesting.

Generally, as an aside, it is about time Stanford was blessed with unique catalogue numbers, such as ‘CVS’ or the ‘JD’ prefix. Anyone who has explored Stanford’s list of works will realise just how complex the entries can be.

The CD cover was specially commissioned for this recording from Alison Archer. Also included are pictures of the choir, their director, the organist and a number of extracts from Stanford’s manuscripts.

The singing on this new CD from Winchester College, with their director Malcolm Archer is excellent. The organ accompaniment, sometimes overlooked in reviews of choral and liturgical music, is very well played by Jamal Sutton. The venue chosen for the recording was Merton College Chapel, Oxford: surely there are some suitable premises in their beautiful home city – the Cathedral or the College Chapel?

An online reviewer (Cross-Rhythms) of this CD suggested that general listeners may find that this CD is ‘too much of a muchness’. Certainly, this is true if through-listened. I suggest selecting elements for exploration and then going and doing something else. For example, enjoy the Te Deum and the Benedictus from the Service in C, then maybe follow this with the hymn tunes, and then the Three Motets. Other anthems and the psalm setting can be enjoyed later.

John France, MusicWeb International, 13th January 2016

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