Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s truly significant place in the history of British music has never been in doubt, founded upon his qualities as a teacher and pedagogue in the twenty or so years preceding World War One. What has been less-known, or appreciated, were his concurrent activities as a conductor and – especially – composer, a musician who was also an organist, choral trainer, writer on music and an administrator.
Stanford (1852-1924) was multi-gifted and he lived to see his music performed by Joachim, the Berlin Philharmonic, Mahler (in New York), Hans von Bülow, Hans Richter, Beecham, Moiseiwitsch and many other great contemporaries. From his voluminous output (including nine operas), a few pieces retain places in various repertories: The Blue Bird, Trotting to the Fair’, the Coronation Gloria in Excelsis (1911), and the beautiful Clarinet Concerto.
As we approach the centenary of Stanford’s passing, and thanks to the assiduity of various scholars and the work of enterprising record companies, we are in a much more informed position in assessing Stanford’s art than at almost any time since his death. Good recordings of his major works have appeared from time to time, and this Hyperion release enables us to investigate further various aspects of this manifestly greatly-gifted musician.
It is a fine achievement all-round: in choice of repertoire, in excellence of performances and in presentation this issue cannot be faulted. It begins with the Overture in the style of a tragedy – the important words being “in the style of”, for this is no ‘tragic overture’ per se (as is Brahms’s work, of course, or Beethoven’s Coriolan). The tragic element is therefore perceived at one step apart – observed, as it were, from a distance, and it may be significant that this work waited 107 years (until 2010) for its first performance. Its emotion is not that of a heady Romantic, heart-on-sleeve, but rather as a study in mood, and – as always with this composer – magnificently orchestrated.
Tragedy, more immediate and personal, informs Verdun. This is an orchestration by the composer of the last two movements of his Second Organ Sonata, directly inspired by the horrendous events of the Great War – or, rather, their aftermath. It’s a restrained contemplation of the aftermath of man’s inhumanity to man. Stanford’s depth of feeling is palpable, but always held in check, and Howard Shelley’s account fully lays out the character and inherent nobility of the irascible Irishman, stunned by the contemplation of what his fellow-Europeans were capable, throwing themselves into mass slaughter in the name of nationhood, alluded to in the concluding quotation of the Marseillaise.
The Welcome March of 1903 commemorates a visit by the newly-crowned King Edward VII to Ireland, then still a part of the United Kingdom. This is not quite in the Elgarian class but is a suitably breezy affair, light relief after the preceding solemnities, very well played and given with just the right balance of insouciance and nobility.
Perhaps the most immediately appealing work here is Fairy Day, a set of three Idylls (Dawn, Noon and Night) – a cantata, in effect – for female chorus and small orchestra, written in 1912 for a New York choral society (though, as Jeremy Dibble’s fine booklet note – therein William Allingham’s texts – points out there does not appear to be evidence of an American premiere). The fashion for pieces of this nature has long since disappeared (a residue, no doubt, of the wholesale reworking of society in the wake of 1914-18), but we can appreciate the artistry – complete, utterly without self-projection – which underlay the composition of this minor masterpiece. The performance here is superb, the singing of Codetta flawless, and Shelley’s combination of internal balance and apposite tempos betrays the hand of a genuine conductor.
Finally, A Song of Agincourt, an orchestral fantasy from 1919. It is difficult not to sense a feeling of triumph in this immediate post-War work, composed as the Versailles Treaty was being put together in France, yet the triumph is not that of flag-waving; that year also saw the erection and unveiling of the Cenotaph in London – the nature of the victory (to say nothing of then-concurrent troubles in Ireland) is underpinned by a solemn vein, yet it is positivity that concludes the work.
No-one could legitimately claim that the music here is by a very great composer, but it is undoubtedly deeply-felt, genuinely artistic, often inspired, magnificently orchestrated and structured, well-worth the attention of all music-lovers interested in British music, an impressive tribute to a figure whose contribution to the UK’s musical heritage, the teacher of – amongst others – Vaughan Williams, Stokowski, Holst, Ireland and Bliss, cannot be overstated.