Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Charles Villiers Stanford: Stabat Mater on Naxos

Ever since hearing the Chandos (CHAN 9548) premiere recording of Charles Villiers Stanford’s Stabat Mater, I have regarded it as a choral symphony with a Christian text, rather than a cantata or oratorio.
The work’s full title is explicit: Stabat Mater: A Symphonic Cantata for Soli, Chorus and Orchestra. If one listened to this work, but did not understand or recognise the language (Latin), one would not immediately guess its religious significance.
Another view of this work is propounded by Jeremy Dibble in the liner notes. He suggests that the work is permeated with an operatic rhetoric. Stanford always aspired to be regarded as a great composer of opera, and did contribute a number of important, but rarely performed, works to this genre. I certainly think that much of the music in the Stabat Mater could regarded as ‘English (or Irish) Verdi.’ It is the episodic structure of the work, the melodies, the use of a vocal quartet and the chorus acting as a ‘crowd’ witnessing the events, that lead me to this opinion.
Charles Porte (Sir Charles V. Stanford. London: Kegan Paul, 1921) summed up the Stabat Mater’s musical success: he insisted that this work ‘has a certain melodic charm’ which is balanced by ‘the dignity and seriousness of purpose’ expected from a work of this nature.

Dibble writes that ‘Stanford evidently conceived his interpretation of the medieval Latin hymn…not simply as a lament but as a dramatic portrayal of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Judgment, the hope of Redemption and life in Paradise.’
Stanford’s Stabat Mater is presented in five movements, which sound as if they are ‘through composed’: they perfectly reflect the progress of the text. The opening ‘prelude’ and the third movement, a commanding Intermezzo, are for orchestra alone, validating the symphonic status of the work.  The title ‘Intermezzo’ does seem a little ‘light’ for such a deeply-felt text.  The other three movements consider the Virgin Mary kneeling before the Cross, the author begging the Virgin to be able to share in her sorrow and lastly the vision of the Day of Judgement and the ‘glory of paradise.’
The text of the Stabat Mater was devised by Jacopone da Todi or possibly Pope Innocent III: it is not ostensibly liturgical but was used for devotional purposes. It was banned for use by the Council of Trent, but was later included in the Roman Missal as a sequence in 1727. It has been set by many composers, including Rossini, Howells and Verdi.
The work was first performed at the Leeds Triennial Festival on 10 October 1907 under the composer’s direction.

It is difficult to believe that Stanford’s choral work Song to the Soul, op.97b was never performed in his lifetime. It was composed just prior to the First World War in 1913, for a projected trip to the United States where it was due to be performed at the 1914 Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. The material was taken from Stanford’s Songs of Faith, op.97 which had been written in 1906. Those six ‘songs’ for voice and piano, derived their inspiration from the ‘religious’ poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Walt Whitman, which did not necessarily reflect orthodox Christianity.  The war situation in Europe got in the way of plans, and the event was postponed. When it was rearranged for 1915, Stanford was unable to attend, and the new work was abandoned in favour of the composer’s earlier orchestrations of the songs To the Soul and Tears, tears, tears for baritone also from the Songs of Faith.

The text of Song to the Soul is taken from Whitman’s collection of poems, Leaves of Grass and consists of a conflation of two songs – ‘To the Soul’ and ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy’. Enthusiasts of British music will recall that RVW used the words of the former in his Toward the Unknown Region and Delius the latter in his Songs of Farewell.
The present work opens with a deeply-felt orchestral prelude, which is one the loveliest things Stanford penned. The choir enters with the powerful words ‘Darest thou now, O Soul walk out with me toward the unknown region’. The choral writing is a clever juxtaposition of introverted and thoughtful singing with exclamations of great power and optimism. The work ends in a quiet review of what has just gone past. For this listener, it is a superb choral work that should be in the repertoire of all choral societies. It is unbelievable that the premiere was not given until 16 My 2015, 101 years after planned, by the RTE Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, conducted by David Hill.

I have never heard Stanford’s beautiful The Resurrection (Die Auferstehung) op.5 before. This is an early work composed when the Grand Old Man was only 23 years old. It was written at Leipzig whilst the Stanford was studying composition with Carl Reinecke.  His teacher recommended the work to Joseph Barnby for possible performance at the Royal Albert Hall. It was not taken up. Eventually Stanford presented the work at a Cambridge University Musical Society concert in 1875. The text of the work was from an eponymous poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock translated by Catherine Winkworth. Interestingly, when Mahler came to compose his massive Symphony No.2 ‘Resurrection’ he went to the same poetic source.
The listener can best approach The Resurrection by understanding that it is written in three parts. The work is prefaced by a slow, introduction for brass and strings. The first section featuring the chorus is a lively exposition of the words ‘Rise Again’. This is followed by a tenor solo which has a chamber music feel to it. The soloist meditates on ‘My destin’d years of slumber’ before ‘The weary pilgrim’s sorrow is no more…’  Finally, the tenor and chorus join forces in a reflective passage before the work concludes in a blaze of glory. It is an optimistic work, that sounds eminently singeable. By any stretch of the imagination, this is a major choral work, by one of the masters of Victorian music that has lain dormant for too many years. The advertising blurb is correct: this early work ‘balances solemnity with rapturous affirmation.’ For a ‘first’ choral work, it is surely a minor masterpiece.

As would be expected, The Bach Choir, the soloists and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Hill give an inspirational and often moving account of all three works. The dynamics of the recording are splendid. It goes without saying that Jeremy Dibble has provided essential and enlightening liner notes. The texts of all three works are provided.  

This CD is fast lining itself up to be one of my ‘discs of the year.’ From a personal point of view, although I recognise that the Stabat Mater is an absolute masterpiece and is stunningly presented on this CD, I do not warm to it. I need to try to understand why, so I will listen again in the next few days and follow it in the score. However, the opportunity to hear two major choral works by Stanford that I have never heard before makes this disc a real treasure. ‘The Resurrection’ and ‘Song to the Soul’ are two beautiful pieces of music that will long linger in the mind’s ear. 

Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Stabat Mater: Symphonic Cantata, op.96 (1906)
Song to the Soul, op.97b (1913)
The Resurrection (1875)
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano), Catharine Hopper (mezzo soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), David Soar (bass), Jesper Svedberg (cello, The Resurrection), The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill
NAXOS 8.573512
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared. 

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