Tuesday 4 October 2016

A new release from Naxos brings The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and strong line up of soloists under David Hill in a performance that reveals Charles Villiers Stanford’s Stabat Mater to be a work of considerable achievement

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) www.thestanfordsociety.org is largely remembered today as professor at the Royal College of Music in London who pupils included such names as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells. Stanford was born in Dublin and educated at Cambridge where he was appointed organist of Trinity Church. He studied in Leipzig and Berlin and later became a professor at the RCM.

A prolific composer, his music attracted much attention during his lifetime with his Third Symphony in F minor ‘Irish’, first performed in 1887, becoming particularly popular. Yet towards the end of his life he found difficulty getting his works published. His contemporary and colleague at the RCM, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) at least has the distinction of being remembered for his setting of Blake’s Jerusalem, sung each year at the Proms and his anthem I Was Glad, performed on royal occasions as well as occasional performances of Blest pair of Sirens. All that we generally have performed of Stanford’s works are his settings of the Anglican church services.

Over the last few decades Stanford has at least fared well on disc with all of his seven symphonies recorded, as well as his concertos and much of his chamber works.

Naxos’ www.naxos.com world premiere recording of Stanford’s Requiem revealed it to be a quite wonderful work (8.555201-02) that only served to raise similar hopes for his Stabat Mater featured on their latest release from the winning team of The Bach Choir www.thebachchoir.org.uk and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra www.bsolive.com conducted by David Hill www.rayfieldallied.com/artists/david-hill . They are joined by Elizabeth Cragg (soprano) www.elizabethcragg.com , Catherine Hopper (mezzo-soprano) www.catherinehopper.com , Robert Murray (tenor) www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/singers/tenor/robert-murray and David Soar (bass) www.askonasholt.co.uk/artists/singers/bass/david-soar in a programme that also includes Stanford’s Song to the Soul and The Resurrection.


Stanford’s Stabat Mater - A Symphonic Cantata, Op. 96 (1906) was written for the 1907 Leeds Festival that also saw the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Whitman setting Toward the Unknown Region, a text later set by Stanford in his Song to the Soul that follows on this disc. It opens with a purely orchestral Prelude – Largo that brings a quiet, tense opening for wind before timpani herald a rise in the orchestra as it gains pace to arrive at a furious, brilliantly forward thrusting passage. Here David Hill and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra find much vibrancy and brilliance in Stanford’s orchestral writing. The music reaches a plateau with a typically fine melody. There are moments of quieter tension with the organ sounding deeply in the background, bringing a tremendous drama before a gentle coda.

The quartet of soloists and choir join in Stabat Mater dolorosa – Andante molto espressivo where soprano Elizabeth Cragg brings a plaintive ‘Stabat mater, dolorosa juxta crucem lacrimos’ to which the orchestra add a pensive accompaniment. This fine soprano weaves some lovely passages around which the orchestra bring Stanford’s terrific orchestration. Soon tenor Robert Murray, bass David Soar and mezzo-soprano Catherine Hopper weave a lovely sound before the choir join in this beautifully paced section. The Bach Choir are really quite wonderful. Later Elizabeth Cragg brings more fine moments before all join to rise up with Stanford’s soaring choral passages which are wonderfully caught. There are moments of poetic repose with a lovely balance between soloists, choir and orchestra before rising to a climax. It is the soprano that takes the music to a quieter section soon taken by the mezzo, then chorus before a glowing orchestral passages lead to the soprano reprising ‘Stabat mater…’ gently to close.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra rises up suddenly in the orchestral Intermezzo – Allegro moderato before finally achieving a thrust pointed up by timpani only to find another of Stanford’s lovely melodies which works its way through some glorious, glowing passages with some quite magical, quieter moments to a hushed coda.

Eja Mater - Allegretto sees the return of the solo quartet and choir. The upper voices of the chorus rise, through which the lovely voice of the soprano, Elizabeth Cragg appears. The orchestra leads ahead with the soprano finding a forward moving, gentle tempo with a lovely lilt. The rest of the soloists join before the music moves through some quite wonderful choral passages.  Bass David Soar takes over bringing a strong rich texture over a pulsating orchestral accompaniment. Elizabeth Cragg joins David Soar in some fine passages finding an exquisite sensitivity in ‘Juxta crucem tecum stare’ before rising with the chorus and orchestra. Later there are some descending phrases for the soloists that faintly recall Verdi before the choir and orchestra take us gently to the coda.

The choir and brass sound out in a triumphant Finale: Virgo virginum praeclara - Allegro before the soprano is heard and all the soloists join in a tremendous passage to which the choir join. The music quietens before a male chorus and orchestra take the music forward. The soloists weave some tremendous passages, quite beautifully sung before moving through moments of increasing drama, topped by the entry of a stunningly brilliant Elizabeth Cragg. There are passages of vibrant, brilliant orchestral writing with choir and organ before finding a glowing texture. Soloists, choir and orchestra weave a really lovely ‘Amen’ before all reach a gentle coda.

A quite glorious work, here given a performance of great stature.

The American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a great influence on many British composers around the turn of the 19th/20th century. The same text from Whitman’s poem Whispers of Heavenly Death was set by Stanford, Vaughan Williams and Holst, the latter two composers deciding to jointly select a winner (Vaughan Williams)

Stanford’s setting Song to the Soul, Op. 97b (1913) post-dates the younger composers’ settings by six years. Pizzicato basses open before the orchestra gently finds a flow, showing some of Stanford’s really fine orchestration. David Hill extracts some lovely moments from the orchestra before the choir enter in the gently flowing ‘Darest thou now O Soul walk out with me toward the unknown region.’ There is a lovely blending and weaving of Stanford’s choral writing, finding much sensitivity before finding more of a thrust and drama. Timpani are heard as the orchestra and chorus really rise in surging phrases culminating in a real climax before thrusting ahead with the organ underpinning in a tremendous lead to a gentler coda.

This is a very fine setting that is in no way put in the shade by Vaughan Williams.

The Resurrection, Op. 5 (1875) is a much earlier work dating from when Stanford was heavily involved with the Cambridge University Music Society, though with his name beginning to spread much wider. It is a setting of a poem by the German poet, Friedrich Klopstock (1724-1803), the same poet set by Mahler in his Second Symphony ‘Resurrection.’ Horns open, immediately followed by a lovely orchestral melody with solo cellist, Jesper Svedberg, prominent, bringing a chamber like scale to the music. There is a melody full of deep feeling, soon rising in dynamics and tempo in the orchestra before the choir join in a crisply phrased ‘Rise again, yes, rise again wilt thou.’ Here the part writing is more conventional though throughout there are many pointers to Stanford’s mature style, especially in the orchestra.

David Hill finds a fine subtle lilt to Stanford’s choral phrasing, rising through some joyous, passionate moments. Tenor, Robert Murray, enters in ‘Day of Praise, of joyful tears the day,’ bringing some very fine sonorities before subtly adding greater passion as the solo progresses. The choir join with some very fine passages, beautifully controlled before a vibrant ‘Hallelujah’ for the chorus. Jesper Svedberg returns for a cello solo over orchestra and chorus before choir and orchestra rise magnificently for the concluding ‘Hallelujah.’

This is a stirring and often poetic work and a fine addition to this disc.

Stanford is still an undeservedly underrated composer. His Stabat Mater is a work of considerable achievement as is this performance from David Hill and the wonderful Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and fine line up of soloists.

They are vividly recorded at the Lighthouse, Poole’s Centre for the Arts, Dorset, England. There are excellent booklet notes from Stanford scholar, Jeremy Dibble as well as full English and Latin texts and translations.

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