Stanford Te Deum & Elegiac Ode Lyrita

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Te Deum, Op 66 (1898)
Elegiac Ode, Op 21 (1884)
Rhian Lois (soprano), Samantha Price (mezzo-soprano), Alessandro Fisher (tenor), Morgan Pearse (baritone)
BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales/Adrian Partington
rec. 2023, BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, UK
Texts and translation included
Lyrita SRCD435 [73]

In 2018 Adrian Partington and the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales made first recordings of two major Stanford choral/orchestral works from late in his career: the Mass Via Victrix, Op 173 and At the Abbey Gate, Op 177 (review). Now, in the year when we mark the centenary of the composer’s death, the same team has made premiere recordings of two large-scale works from the other end of Stanford’s career. 

The earlier of the two works on this disc is the Elegiac Ode  which dates from 1884 although, as Jeremy Dibble tells us in his authoritative notes, parts of the score had been sketched as early as 1881. (In his biography of the composer, Charles Villiers Stanford. Man and Musician (2002), Dibble goes into more detail, saying that the idea to set these verses first came to Stanford as early as 1873, just eight years after Whitman’s poem was published.) It was a commission for the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in 1884 which gave Stanford the impetus to complete the work. Nowadays, we’re very used to hearing settings of the poetry of Walt Whitman by British composers – and by composers of other nationalities, of course – and Dibble lists a number of such works by divers composers. It’s noticeable, though, that all the works he cites were composed later than the Elegiac Ode; It seems possible that Stanford might have a claim to be the composer of the first significant setting of Whitman by a British composer. For his text, Stanford selected seven quatrains from the last part of ‘When lilacs in the dooryard bloom’d’, Whitman’s elegy on the assassination of President Lincoln, published in 1865. The words are exactly the same as those which Gustav Holst set in his Ode to Death (1919); I wonder how aware Holst was at the time he composed that work that Stanford, his composition teacher at the Royal College of Music (1893-98), had set the same Whitman extract some thirty-five years earlier.

The Ode is divided into four sections, which are separately tracked on the disc. The work is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, SATB chorus and orchestra. The first section sets, for choir and orchestra, the two stanzas beginning ‘Come, lovely and soothing death’. Stanford begins with a short orchestral prelude; the music is expansive and dark-hued yet tranquil; it puts me very much in mind of Brahms. It’s noticeable that triplet rhythms are very prominent. When the choir enters (2:02) their music is, like the words, consoling; the lines are very legato and Stanford keeps the textures light. For the second stanza, ‘Prais’d be the fathomless universe’, the music is much more energetic; Whitman has welcomed death and is now celebrating it. Hereabouts, the choral singing is very exciting and I also admired the clear diction of the BBC National Chorus of Wales (BBCNCW). The expansive legato music returns just for the last line. 

In the middle two movements we hear the soloists. First up is baritone Morgan Pearse, who has two stanzas to sing. The soloist’s music is confident, even forthright, and Pearse sings it very well. There’s a definite touch of heroism in what is, in effect, an aria; that’s especially true of the way the solo ends. The fifth stanza forms the third section of Stanford’s design. Here, the soprano soloist is joined by the female voices of the choir.  Whitman refers to ‘glad serenades’ and also ‘dances’; Stanford takes these as his cues, setting the poetry to light-textured, positive music of no little charm. This performance is nicely delicate. The last two stanzas are sung by the choir. For the first few lines we experience what Jeremy Dibble justly describes as “an impressive choral evocation of night and the vast ocean”. This music is hushed and atmospheric and I could not help but feel it as a precursor to Vaughan Williams, and in particular the opening of the last movement of A Sea Symphony. Stanford makes imaginative use of key changes and the harmonic language is highly expressive. The concluding quatrain (‘Over the tree-tops I float thee a song’) is much more extrovert in tone and, in response, Stanford launches into a fast, vigorous fugue. Whilst the music is technically accomplished, I can’t escape the feeling that it’s a bit of a let-down after the preceding passage. The music is built to a short but ecstatic climax for the last line of the poem (‘I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O death!’) Then, however, Stanford pulls off something of a masterstroke. The orchestra winds down the tension in lyrical and rather beautiful music; the way Adrian Partington and the BBCNOW deliver this passage is most poetic. After this, the choir reprises the first line of the poem and its music, bringing the Ode to a lovely and satisfying conclusion; hereabouts I was once again reminded of Brahms.

Elegiac Ode is an impressive composition. Stanford’s musical response to Whitman’s words is eloquent – and I speak as someone who isn’t the greatest fan of Whitman’s poetry. The present performance is excellent in every respect. However, for all the merits of the Ode, the real prize here is the Te Deum.      

Stanford’s setting of the Te Deum was premiered at the 1898 Leeds Triennial Festival. Stanford had taken over as conductor of the Festival that year (succeeding Sir Arthur Sulivan); he was to remain in that post until 1910. The Te Deum was dedicated to Queen Victoria, whose Diamond Jubilee had been celebrated the previous year; it must have been an impressive calling card for the new Festival conductor. The work, which is sung in Latin, is for SATB soloists and chorus with orchestra and organ. It’s a big piece – here, it plays for 45:24 – and it’s emphatically a concert work. 

Stanford divided the Te Deum into six sections, the first of which is set for choir and orchestra. The opening is arresting; the chorus launches straight into the text without a preamble. From the very start, the music bursts with energy and confidence; the same can be said of the singing of the BBCNCW. There’s a bit of relaxation at ‘Tibi omnes angeli’; here, the choral writing features pleasing legato lines. When Stanford reaches the words ‘Pleni sunt cæli et terra’ the music is suitably majestic. Thereafter, beginning at ‘Te gloriosus Apostolorum chorus’ (6:58), the music is very lively and here I admired the excellent energy which both the choir and orchestra bring to the proceedings. 

After this very strong start there’s a movement for the solo quartet (‘Tu Rex gloriæ, Christe’). This is a lovely section in which the music is warm and lyrical. The music reminded me of Dvořák, not least on account of the felicitous writing for the woodwinds. The soloists do well; I especially liked the ringing tenor of Alessandro Fisher. The slight concern I have is that, here and elsewhere, soprano Rhian Lois does have a tendency to dominate her colleagues at times, though perhaps that’s due to the nature of the writing in her part. The third movement is ‘Judex crederis esse venturus’. Jeremy Dibble comments that this movement is “[e]ffectively the ‘Scherzo’ of Stanford’s larger structure”. His deliberate use of inverted commas suggests to me that he uses the term ‘Scherzo’ in terms of pace, for there’s no real trace of wit or humour in this movement. On the contrary, the movement, in which both the soloists and the chorus are involved, is very dramatic. It’s a splendid movement and here it receives a thrilling performance. Adrian Partington’s conducting brings out all the excitement in the music; rhythms are sharply pointed throughout and there’s excellent attention to dynamics from everyone. The soloists have quasi-operatic music to sing and they all deliver the goods. Eventually, the movement attains a thrilling climax at ‘Salvum fac populum tuum, Domine’ at which point I understand the chorus is divided into eight parts. This is a terrific movement to which these performers do full justice.

Wisely, Stanford takes down the temperature in the next movement, ‘Per singulos dies benedicimus te’. This is another movement for the solo quartet, amongst whom the soprano and tenor are given the most prominent roles. The writing is gently cantabile and the whole movement is most attractive. The following movement, ‘Miserere nostri, Domine’, is described by Jeremy Dibble as “essentially a penitential essay for solo quartet and chorus”. The music is intense and seems to me to be deeply felt. All four soloists are given opportunities to shine; the writing both for the soloists and the chorus is inventive and effective. Eventually, the movement comes to a powerful climax (‘quemadmodum speravimus in te’) before Stanford moves without a break into his concluding section, ‘In te, Domine, speravi: non confundar in æternum’. 

This begins with a fugue for the choir; I can’t better Jeremy Dibble’s judgement that this is “robust, intricate and uplifting”. I expressed a bit of disappointment (in the context of its place in the piece) about Stanford’s use of a fugue towards the end of Elegiac Ode; no such reservations apply here. The fugue is briefly interrupted by a passage for the soloists, after which the chorus again takes centre stage, but this time with, it seems, even more vitality and fervour than at the start of the movement; the singing of the BBCNCW is especially effective here as they project Stanford’s music powerfully. There’s a further interjection by the quartet; they then lead most convincingly into a big choral reminiscence of the very opening of the Te Deum. Crowned by a thrilling top B flat from the soprano soloist, there’s one last emphatic statement by all the singers, after which the orchestra and organ play a short, majestic coda.

Stanford’s Te Deum is a terrific piece and, for me, it’s a great discovery. The music is compelling throughout and I would rank this work, without hesitation, alongside the Requiem (1896) and the Stabat Mater (1907). Though I’m not surprised that it has been neglected for so long – in common with so much of Stanford’s music – I hope that anyone who hears this recording will share my view that the neglect is completely unjustified. Stanford’s cause could not have been better served than by this recording. In his biography of the composer, Jeremy Dibble writes that the Te Deum was “[w]ritten on an ambitious scale to suit the 350 members of the Leeds Festival Chorus”. I don’t know how many singers were in the BBC National Chorus of Wales for this assignment; there wouldn’t have been as many as 350 but, my goodness, they make a splendid job of the piece. Their attention to detail in terms of diction, dynamics and general discipline is admirable and they sing with evident commitment to the music. Their colleagues in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are equally impressive. Stanford’s orchestration is colourful and imaginative, enhancing the music throughout, and this orchestra plays splendidly. The solo quartet make fine contributions. Adrian Partington conducts with evident belief in the score and inspires his performers to put Stanford’s piece across with total conviction.          

In his excellent booklet essay, Jeremy Dibble tells us that Elegiac Ode received its premiere at the Norwich Festival in October 1884; the Te Deum was unveiled at the Leeds Triennial Festival almost exactly fourteen years to the day later, in October 1898. Stanford himself conducted both premieres. In his aforementioned biography of Stanford, Dibble references subsequent performances of the Ode in Cambridge, London and Vienna (the latter, conducted by Richter, using a German translation of the text). Thereafter, Dibble records another performance by Stanford in Leeds in 1901, though I wonder if the fact that he says that Stanford “exhumed” the work on that occasion might imply that it had already become neglected by then. As for the Te Deum, Dibble mentions that Stanford conducted another performance in 1899 and there was also a London performance that same year. In 1901, Stanford sought to interest Richter in performing the work in Manchester; Richter obliged. I’ve also been able to establish that the Te Deum was given at the 1904 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. However, though there may have been a few additional performances elsewhere, both of that work and of the Ode, I strongly suspect that both pieces had fallen into complete neglect by the time World War I broke out, if not before. I’m certain neither work has been performed in recent times and the present recordings are definitely the first that either has received.  I do hope very much that these recordings will make more musicians aware of the scores and, who knows, perhaps some further performances will result; that would be very fitting. I’d particularly love to hear the Te Deum live.

Lyrita have presented the performances in excellent sound; there’s good clarity and a fine dynamic range while the loud passages have all the impact one could desire.

This outstanding CD will be self-recommending to all devotees of Stanford’s music; I hope that it will also win new admirers for this fine composer. I think this is likely to be the most important contribution on disc to the Stanford centenary.

John Quinn

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