Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Charles Villiers Stanford: Part Songs

Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir/Paul Spicer
SOMM CD0128 Track Listings are at the end of the review.  

Three things can be said in introduction to this excellent new CD from SOMM (for the concerns I have, see below). Firstly, looking at the catalogue of Charles Villiers Stanford’s part-songs reveals that he wrote around a hundred examples of the genre. The earliest was ‘Six Part Songs’ Op.33 which I believe is still in manuscript and the last was possibly ‘Lady May’ written in 1924 for two-part women’s voices. Most of the remainder have been published.
Secondly, Stanford’s taste in literature was eclectic, although possibly not quite as wide-ranging as that of Hubert Parry. Major poets that he ‘set’ as part-songs include John Milton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Michael Drayton, Thomas Moore and Mary Coleridge, as well as a variety of ‘Elizabethan’ verse. If one examines his major choral works, the poets include Swinburne, Longfellow and Henry Newbolt. It could be argued that much of this literature was ‘Victorian’ however there is considerable diversity amongst the output of these authors.
And thirdly, Stanford has composed most of his part-songs in a trajectory from the secular English madrigal. Jeremy Dibble has summed up the composer’s achievement by noting that he ‘shows a sensitivity for handling voices, and an understanding of how choral texture, harmony, assonance, polyphony and vocal contour can accentuate the meaning of a text.’ These facets have been a feature of the best of English part-songs since Morley and Dowland. Traditionally ‘part-songs’ (as opposed to madrigals) were composed in a largely homophonic style. However, many of Stanford’s essays’ include a deal of polyphony that makes for variety of texture and sound. It is this increasing complexity of musical content that sets Stanford’s part-songs apart from some of the post Mendelssohnian ‘four-part harmony exercise’ type of composition which prevailed in England in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
I do not wish to explore each of the works presented here, save to make one comment. My favourite number is ‘A blue bird’. To my mind this is the most perfect fusion of words and music ever achieved by a British composer. It is given a memorable performance on this CD.

The organisation and presentation of the programme on this CD troubled me greatly. The track-listing gives only the title of each song. There is no reference to the date of composition or the source of the text. But more worrying is the fact that the opus numbers or titles of the ‘collection’ from which these part-songs are extracted are not stated.  I concede that much of this information is given in the liner notes but these are in a fairly small font and the listener has to carefully search for the required fact.
I am not sure what the principle behind selecting the songs for this CD was? Glancing at my annotations to the track-listings above shows that it was certainly not chronological or by ‘collection.’  Even the ‘Eight Part-Songs’ Op. 119, which are given in their entirety are spread out over the ‘batting list’ and are not given in the order presented in the score.
I happen to be a Stanford enthusiast. I have at my disposal various books, catalogues and articles that have allowed me to piece together exactly what is on this disc, where it came from and when it was written. Even now, I am not sure that I have got it all correct: this is a review, not a dissertation. Most listeners will not bother carry out this research.
I am guessing that Paul Spicer and/or the producer selected this programme based on contrast between songs in order to make for satisfying listening. However, this is not the way I would recommend anyone to explore this CD. Seventy-five minutes and twenty-five songs are more than enough for anyone to take at a single sitting. Most people would approach this disc by selecting their ‘favourites’ or titles that ‘appeal’. If I had been devising the programme I would have opted for a chronological selection. Where possible I would have included all the songs in each collection, unless there was a very good musical reason to omit it. I would also have maintained the published order within each collection.

This is a finely recorded CD.  The performance by the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir under their conductor Paul Spicer, has taken these twenty-five numbers extremely seriously. I guess there is always a danger of singing Victorian and Edwardian part-songs with ones’ tongue firmly in one’s cheek. This is a pitfall that has been studiously avoided.
These songs are beautifully paced, always allowing the attractive part-writing and subtle play on traditional harmony to dominate the performance. The diction of the words is perfect: I had no need to refer to the enclosed text to understand the burden of any of these settings. However, it is always nice to browse the poems ‘offline’ as it were. The breadth of this collection makes for a lovely ‘anthology’ of English poetry.
I am not sure just how many of these part-songs are currently available in score – I guess that some will be ‘anthologised’ in a number of publications’ whilst I know that ‘Heraclitus’ and ‘The blue bird’ are still in print or ‘online’. The preparation of this CD must have involved much exploration in the ‘music library’ to uncover these treasures.
I noted above that the liner notes contain the texts: there is also an excellent introductory essay by the scholar Jeremy Dibble which is well-worth reading. Included are good mini-biographies of Paul Spicer and the Choir. A French translation of the essay is also provided.  A couple of photographs of C.V.S. and the choir would have been a bonus.

Apart from my reservations about the ‘programme’ and the track details, this is a highly desirable CD. I accept that ‘part-songs’ may not be to everyone’s taste but I think that this is a genre that could regain some of its lost popularity. All Stanford enthusiasts will be delighted to purchase this CD, as it offers a chance to hear some largely forgotten music by the ‘master.’  I would love to have been able to conclude my review by stating that I am looking forward to the next volume in the near future. But I fear, is not to be. Hoping for the ‘complete’ part-songs was just hoping a little too much. Meanwhile, we should be grateful for what has been given us. It is essential listening of all lovers of Charles Villiers Stanford and of British choral music.

‘Time’ Op.142 (1914) [5:40]                                   
Four Part Songs Op.110 No.4, ‘Heraclitus’ (c.1909)
To Chloris (1873)
Six Elizabethan Pastorals Op.49 Set I, No.2, ‘Corydon, arise!’ (1892)
Eight Part-songs Op. 119 No. 6,  ‘The swallow’ (1910)]
Six Elizabethan Pastorals Op.53 Set II, No.3, ‘Praised be Diana’ (1894)
Six Elizabethan Pastorals Op.53 Set II, No.2,  ‘Like desert woods’ (1894)
Six Elizabethan Pastorals Op.49 Set, I, No.1,  ‘To his flocks’ (1892)
Six Elizabethan Pastorals Op.53 Set II, No.1, ‘On a hill there grows a flower’, (1894)
Eight Part-songs Op. 119 No. 3, ‘The blue bird’ (1910)
Six  Elizabethan Pastorals Op.67 Set III,  No.3,  ‘Shall we go dance?’ (1897)
Eight Part-songs Op.127 No.3,  ‘When Mary thro' the garden went’ (1910)
Six Elizabethan Pastorals Op.49 No.3, ‘Diaphenia’ (1892)
Eight Part-songs Op.127 No.4, The haven (1910)
Three Part-songs Op.111 No.1, ‘A lover's ditty’ (c.1908)
Choral Song Op.97 ‘God and the Universe’ (1906)
‘Peace, come away’ (1892)
Four Part-songs Op.110, ‘A dirge’ (c.1909)
Choral Songs in Honour of Her Majesty Queen Victoria , ‘Out in the windy West’ (1899) [4:50]
Eight Part Songs Op. 119, No.1, ‘The witch’] No.2, ‘Farewell, my joy!’ No.4, ‘The train’, No.5, ‘The inkbottle’ No.7, ‘Chillingham’ No.8, ‘My heart in thine’ (1910)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

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