Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Latest Naxos Recording of Charles Villiers Stanford Surveys his Choral Music

Charles Villiers Stanford was born in Dublin on September 30, 1852; but, before the end of the nineteenth century, he had established himself as one of the leading figures in British music. His university education was at Cambridge, where he was appointed organist of Trinity College while still an undergraduate. In 1874 he went to Leipzig and began lessons with Carl Reinecke at the Leipzig Conservatory. It did not take him long to realize that Reinecke was too pedantic and old-fashioned to suit his own interests in making music. On the recommendation of Joseph Joachim, he moved to Berlin in 1876, where he had a far more productive encounter with Friedrich Kiel.

Stanford has been generously represented on recordings released by Naxos, and this Friday that representation will be extended to an album devoted entirely to his choral music performed by The Bach Choir conducted by David Hill. All three selections are for chorus and orchestra, and the ensemble is the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. As usual is currently taking pre-orders for this new recording.

Stanford tends to be better known for his impact as a teacher than for his compositions. Perhaps his experiences with Reinecke disposed him to be a better teacher for the next generation than Reinecke had been for him. He was a Founding Professor at the Royal College of Music and Professor of Music at Cambridge. His Wikipedia page has a delightful mosaic of four of his best known pupils (clockwise from top left), Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and John Ireland:

Four of Charles Villiers Stanford's best-know pupils (from Wikipedia, public domain)

These days one would be remiss in excluding Rebecca Clarke from that list.

The three selections on this new recording come from two periods in Stanford’s life. His Opus 5, “The Resurrection,” is a setting of an English translation by Catherine Winkworth of the same poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock that Gustav Mahler would set in the final movement of his second (“Resurrection”) symphony. It was written in Leipzig but published in Cambridge. The other two works were written early in the twentieth century. Opus 96 is a setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn with an extended orchestral prelude and a shorter intermezzo before the “Eia, Mater” verse. The remaining selection is an orchestration of one of the poems by Walt Whitman (“Song to the Soul”) from the Opus 97 Songs of Faith, originally composed for solo voice and piano.

It goes without saying that Stanford’s setting of Klopstock is a far cry from Mahler’s. There is an air of dutifulness his approach to the words (which may have something to do with Winkworth’s translation) that never conveys why that poem should have had such a profound effect on Mahler. On the other hand the instrumentation oscillates between tub-thumping grandeur and a few moments of intimacy (which include solo strings) near the conclusion that suggest the struggling young composer trying to get out from under Reinecke’s conservatism.
Nevertheless, Stanford’s “escape” from that influence never really comes to fruition in the later selections. In the case of Opus 96, the phrase “dramatic, at times almost operatic and Wagnerian” on the Naxos page for this album does not make a particularly conducive fit to the quiet suffering depicted by the text that we encounter in the much earlier setting by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Far more interesting is the Whitman setting, which leads one to wonder whether Stanford may have been responsible for bringing that poet to the attention of his pupil Vaughan Williams.

Nevertheless, there is definitely one item of historical interest in this recording. The Bach Choir dates all the way back to 1876, when it was founded in London with a focus on performing the choral works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Along with his academic posts, Stanford was also Musical Director of this ensemble. Thus, in preparing his compositions for performance on this album, Hill was honoring the legacy of the choir he was leading!

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