Like London buses,
recordings of Charles Villiers Stanford’s A Child’s Garland of Songs,
op.30 comes along in twos. It seems barely a few weeks ago that I reviewed
this work included on the album Children’s Songs (SOMMCD 0655). This superb
album was performed by Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Gareth Brynmor John
(baritone), Susie Allan (piano).
In the Somm recording of the Child’s Garland, some numbers are sung by the baritone, some by the mezzo soprano and three as two part duets. In the present edition, all are sung by Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano). The key to understanding and enjoying these songs is to realise that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Child’s Garden of Verse from the perspective of the child, not the adult. That said, there is nothing “childish” about the words or the music. To be sure, both the composer and the poet may be reflecting on times when they both were youngsters. I have remarked before that the sentiments of these poems may not be shared or understood by the “Wiser Youngsters of Today” (Introductory Poem to Treasure Island). In fact, one poem, Distant Lands must need carry a “trigger warning” in school and university classrooms. The songs are straightforward, but never condescending. They cover a wide range of one-time child interests – pirate stories, windy nights, travel to foreign lands and sailing ships. I am glad that I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to appreciate both the music and the texts of this cycle. They are flawlessly performed by the soloist.
The Songs of Faith were
published in 1908 in two sets: Tennyson and Whitman. They had been written
between May and December 1906. These are strong advocates of belief, without
being dogmatic or doctrinaire. In fact, they represent a typically healthy
Anglican Agnosticism. The opening number, Strong Son of God, is taken
from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. It very much emphasises this sceptical mood
where the poet “believes where we cannot prove.” Only by the notion that God
made man, “He thinks he was not made to die.” This is a strong setting with a
complex accompaniment. God and the Universe counterpoises the vastness
of the Cosmos and the insignificance of the individual soul. This dark setting
emphasises doubt, eventually conquered by recognition of God’s purposes in the
optimistic ending. Faith meditates on what for many is the main obstacle
to belief – the existence of pain and disaster. This powerful song is dramatic
and ultimately resolves the contradiction of his doubt. The first of the Walt
Whitman settings is To the Soul, the text of which was published in his Leaves
of Grass. It is well known from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s choral piece Towards
the Unknown Region (first performed in 1907). Stanford’s take is restrained
in its intensely chromatic exposition. Once again, the conclusion, “Then we
burst forth – we float, In Time and Space” is confident in impact. Tears
has been described by Stanford scholar, Jeremy Dibble, as a “scena” rather than
a song. Certainly, Stanford uses wide ranging musical material to create the
contrast between “the tempestuous tears of the night” and the “calm of the
day.” (Michael Pilkington, English Solo Song: Guide to the Repertoire, Parry
and Stanford). The final song, Joy, Shipmate, Joy, majors on the
idea that death is a release, and the beginning of a new life. Therefore death
should not be feared. The piano part rolls like the sea bearing the ship to its
In what is probably a typo, the
sleeve notes state that this work was recorded on 24 November 1918!
I enjoyed the Songs of a Roving Celt. This cycle reflects on the progress of a Scotsman to his homeland, having lost his friend at sea. As it was composed around 1918, it clearly “touched a chord” with the public, many of whom were in a comparable situation. It would be easy for the more sophisticated reader in 2022 to mock the sentiment of the verse of Murdoch Maclean. The opening song The Pibroch reminds the listener that the music of the bagpipe can express a myriad of emotion – from “ancient pride” to a “dirge of men that died” and “haunting fears” to “parting tears.” It is a call to return to the native heath. Musically, Stanford has created an effective set of variations to express the wide ranging sentiment of the text. It is little wonder that this became a popular song. The second number, Assynt of the Shadows suggests that the poet’s companion has been buried at sea, off the coast of Scotland. It is a dark setting, which underscores his tragic loss. Howell suggests that The Sobbing of the Spey is as near to writing a sentimental ballad that Stanford ever got. Part recitative, part melody, it suggests that Scotsmen, whether at home or abroad, never forget “their own romantic river” or hear “that homeland call.” No More is a passionate reflection on the fact that the poet’s friend will never see the “dawning skies” of Morven again. There is a beautifully wrought “middle eight” where the poet looks as “the gloaming fades in the West” and the “bee is homing to its long rest.” The final song, The Call is a lovely evocation of the poet’s return to his beloved Isle of Skye, and sense of loss that his companion is not with him.
The liner notes explain that the Four Patriotic Songs were not penned or originally published as a group. But, for this recording they have been gathered and performed as a set. Written during the Great War they present a thoughtful, rather than tub-thumping or (too) jingoistic, appreciation of the Four Nations of the United Kingdom. All are to texts by the Cheshire born poet Cicely Fox Smith. St George of England is first up. Here the Patron Saint has given the dragon a break and is fighting the foe in Flanders. When this enemy is laid low, he will return to England to rest “where the golden willows blow.” This is followed by the melancholy The Fair Hills of Ireland, which St Patrick had blessed because “he loved them so.” Turning his attention to Scotland, St Andrew’s Land is a charming parody. Textually, Fox was skilful at “mimicking Scottish and English dialect forms.” Here where “the braes are fair” and the “glens are bonnie” seems to represent an idyll of all that “we were fighting for.” Wales for Ever quotes Men of Harlech and alludes to the folksongs Bells of Aberdovey and All Through the Night. As a pendant to these Patriotic Songs, the CD closes with the compelling and largely timeless A Carol of Bells which sets a longish poem by Louis N Parker. The idea is that the Christmas Bells of London salute the fallen (collapsed/destroyed) bells of Flanders – and by implication the fallen men. Listen out Oranges and Lemons, the chimes of Big Ben and God Save the King. The carillon like piano accompaniment completely matches the text. One would have to be particularly hard hearted not to shed a tear, despite some of its politically incorrect sentiment.
The singing by Elisabetta Paglia is thoroughly enjoyable. I noted in my review of Volume 1 of this cycle that she has a notable resumé, with many operatic roles to her credit, including Dorabella in Cosi fan Tutte, Siébel in Gounod’s Faust and Tisbe in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Paglia has sung the solo part in Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater and Gloria. Clearly this talented singer is comfortable singing diverse material from the 17th century onwards. Her approach to Stanford is a perfect complement to this varied repertoire from the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian era. Equally impressive is the contribution made by Christopher Howell. Not only does he provide sympathetic accompaniments, but he has also been the driving force behind this project.
As with Volume 1 of this cycle, the booklet notes by Christopher Howell are ideal. As always, he gives a detailed introduction to all the songs. This includes the basic information as well as interesting commentary. More details can be gleaned from the ever-growing collection of his Stanfordian Thoughts published on a regular basis on MusicWeb International. A running index is kept at the foot of each .pdf file: the latest is here (Page 5). As with the previous album, I was disappointed that no texts were included. However, they are nearly all available at the invaluable Lieder Text Site maintained by Emily Ezust. This is not an ideal situation, for it means the listener must do some preparation. That said, the Stanfordian Thoughts devoted to each song cycle, does include a selection of the words interspersed with interpretation.
I relished this second volume of Stanford songs on the Da Vinci Classics label. There is much here to inspire, entertain, amuse and move. I recommend listening to it in small doses: perhaps taking each cycle at a sitting. Nothing (to me) palls more that listening to 25 songs without a break. The singing, the recording and the documentation is ideal. It is to be hoped that further volumes will appear in the coming months.Track Listing:
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Songs of Faith, op.97 (1906)
A Child’s Garland of Songs, op.30 (pub.1892)
Songs of a Roving Celt, op.157 (1918)
Four Patriotic Songs, (pub.1917-18)
A Carol of Bells (1915)
Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo soprano), Christopher Howell (piano)
rec.27 February, 4 June 2022, Studios of Griffa E Figli, Milan, Italy
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00608