Sunday 17 February 2013

CD review - I was glad - sacred music of Stanford and Parry

I Was Glad - VIVAT 101
The idea of an Anglican Evening Service with orchestral accompaniment is not a common one nowadays, and I suspect few people would anticipate hearing the standard Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis performed like this. But this new disc from Robert King and the King's Consort showcases Charles Villiers Stanford's orchestral versions of his evening canticles, alongside the music of his great contemporary C. Hubert H. Parry. The disc is the group's 100th, and the first on their new Vivat label.

It was Sir John Stainer, after he became organist at St Paul's Cathedral in 1873 who started commissioning settings of the evening canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) with orchestral accompaniment for the cathedral's annual Festival for the Sons of the Clergy. Stanford was commissioned in 1880 and wrote his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A, his second set of canticles but his first with orchestral accompaniment.

Stanford's set of evening canticles, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat, were written in 1879. Intended for his own choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Stanford had brought a new symphonic sweep to the construction of the canticles with a quasi orchestral organ part. sophisticated construction and complex relationship between choir and accompaniment. So it should come as no surprise that when writing in 1880 for choir and orchestra, the result should have a strong feel of Brahms Serenades. What is less obvious, is how well the other three sets of evening canticles responded to being orchestrated. 

Stanford's Magnficat and Nunc Dimittis in G were written in 1902, again with organ accompaniment but he orchestrated them in 1907. Finally came the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C in 1909. The disc does not explain why Stanford orchestrated them, but he did so with care, creating things of great beauty, though the works sound world is that of the past, the Brahms of Stanford's younger days.

For the Coronation of 1902, Stanford wrote no new music but orchestrated his Te Deum in B flat (from the same service as his 1879 canticles, which led him to orchestrate the evening canticles as well). At this same Coronation service Parry had been asked to provide a new setting of the anthem I was glad for the opening anthem of the ceremony. Parry was requested, by Frederick Bridge the organist of the abbey, to incorporate into the anthem the procession of the monarchs from the West Door of the abbey up the nave, as well as the tradition cries of the Scholars from Westminster School. The result is a hugely grand, and complex piece of musical theatre which responds to the different moments in the ceremony.  As it turned out, the ceremony was postponed because of Edward VII's illness. When it did happen, the performance of the anthem was chaos.

For the Coronation in 1911, Parry returned to the anthem, revising the opening prelude and upping the total of trumpets to six. It is this version of the anthem that we hear today. In performance the result was little better than in 1902, because the procession which was timed at six minutes, actually took 20 minutes.  For the same service Parry wrote his Te Deum, basing the work on two hymn tunes Old Hundredth and St. Anne.

Despite the rediscovery of much Parry's music in the last few years or so, his best known work (Jerusalem apart) remains his Milton setting Blest Pair of Sirens. This was actually commissioned by Stanford in 1885 for the London Bach Choir (of which Stanford was conductor), to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

Robert King and his team seem to have put together with care a period orchestra to accompany these items, with an array of wind and brass instruments from the early 20th century before bores got wider and orchestral forces got so much louder. Though recorded in London, the late Victorian Father Willis organ from Hereford Cathedral was piped in live for the recordings. Stanford's orchestrations in particular make striking use of the organ within the orchestral timbre. In terms of size, the choir numbers some 36 singers and the orchestra includes 27 strings with double wood-wind. I did wonder whether the balance would work but it does thanks not only to changes in sound brought by the period instruments, but also the careful orchestration of both Parry and Stanford.

From the very opening, the performances of Stanford's 1880 Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A brings to mind Brahms. The choir sings with beautiful clarify of words and line. It is a mixed choir, but the women on the top line sine with a just the right amount of purity of line. 

This Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were conceived by Stanford for orchestral forces, and the result is rather sophisticated and quite dramatic, certainly not a chamber piece. In the Nunc Dimittis we get some lovely divided cellos and at other moments, then elsewhere the orchestra provides support and colour creating a subtle piece which is finely sung and played.

In I was glad you become very ware of the differences in the texture and timbre of the orchestra compared to a modern on, it is a richer round, less brass dominated with clearer textures and perhaps more sonorous. And here the Father Willis organ makes a fine contribution. The choral singing is less massive than on some performances, but the balance works partly because of the clear, less insistent sound of the orchestra. Frankly the Vivat Regina cries sound simply too nice, but at O pray for the peace of Jerusalem there is some lovely subtle singing.

King's account of the work certainly brings a tingle to the spine, but he also brings out the subtle differences in sound world making the performance richer and less brassily up from.

Stanford was a brilliant orchestrator and the way he transferred the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G is simply magical, the opening of the Magnificat now transformed into a rippling harp part. Carolyn Sampson in the solo role is womanly but pure of tone. It is lovely to hear the undulations of the strings in the orchestra, part of its magic is it doesn't sound like an organ part orchestrated. In the Nunc Dimittis David Wilson Johnson sings the baritone part expressively, but with a trifle too much vibrato for my taste.

Parry's 1911 Coronation Te Deum rather surprised me by its sheer lack of pomposity. It is a richly  symphonic piece,  with Parry handling the chorus in a notably flexible manner. His use of the two hymn tunes is similarly not overdone, with the melodies underpinning the work in a number of ways. The semi-chorus writing at Holy Holy is surprisingly meditative and beautifully realised here. And with the blaze of glory at Thou art the King of Glory, Parry shows what an interesting composer he can be.

From the subtle opening of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat, Stanford builds to a richly symphonic climax, not only reminding us of Brahms but impressing with the way the original choir and organ work had such a strongly symphonic structure. In fact, this was one of Stanford's major innovations when it came to setting the canticles. The Nunc Dimittis uses only men's voices, with Stanford putting a lovely aura around them, though here the balance was rather pushed to the limit.

Parry's introduction to Blest Pair of Sirens evidently paraphrases the overture to Die Meistersinger, though I'm not entirely sure why. Still, it is a lovely piece, which is given a nicely modulated performance here which leads into a fine, subtle performance of the piece. This is not an account of the work which relishes great amplitude or volume. I loved it but some people might want a bigger bone version, but I wouldn't be without the sound world which King, his singers and players conjure up.

With Stanford's final pair of evening canticles, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C there is a really big symphonic sweep to both pieces, encompassing both the choral and orchestral writing. It makes you realise again quite how revolutionary Stanford's original pieces were, and makes you wonder why they are not heard more often. I do hope that now this disc has showed what strong pieces they are that choral societies give them a try.

We are giving a delightful bonne bouche at the end, Parry's Jerusalem in Elgar's orchestration. Parry did provide an orchestration himself, but it is lovely to hear the familiar one in this slightly unfamiliar guise.

The disc comes handsomely packaged with comprehensive articles by Jeremy Dibble and Robert King on both the music and the forces used. 

We no longer have to worry that late Parry and Stanford are harmonically old-fashioned and backward-looking. The ghost of Brahms lies strongly on the music, but we can appreciate its quality and distinctiveness. Neither composer was in the avant-garde and both turned old-fogey when quite young. But the music they created whilst tutting about modernism is simply wonderful.

I found this disc a complete delight and a revelation. The subtlety of the sound word combined with the glorious symphonic feel for much of Stanford's writing, plus the new look at Parry's cold favourites; all these contribute to a disc which could easily charm its way onto everyone's shelves

I was glad - sacred music of Stanford and Parry
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A (1880) [11.12]
C Hubert H. Parry (1848 - 1918) - I was glad (1911) [6.51]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G (1902) [8.15]
C Hubert H. Parry (1848 - 1918) - 'Coronation' Te Deuum in D (1911) [14.25]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in B flat (1879) [7.18]
C Hubert H. Parry (1848 - 1918) - Blest pair of Sirens (1885) [9.11]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C (1909) [7.31]
C Hubert H. Parry (1848 - 1918) orch. Elgar - Jerusalem (3.03)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
David Wilson-Johnson (bass)
Choir of the King's Consort
The King's Consort
Robert King (conductor)
Recorded at St. Jude's Church, London, NW1, September 20-22 2012
VIVAT 101 1CD [67.52]

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