Welcome to Hyperion Records, an independent British classical label devoted to presenting high-quality recordings of music of all styles and from all periods from the twelfth century to the twenty-first.
Hyperion offers both CDs, and downloads in a number of formats. The site is also available in several languages.
Please use the dropdown buttons to set your preferred options, or use the checkbox to accept the defaults.
Recorded in association with a live performance from Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in 2022, this account of Stanford’s Requiem from Martyn Brabbins and massed Birmingham forces thrillingly captures all the grandeur and intimacy of a neglected choral epic.
By our easier-going, more liberal twenty-first-century values, why not? But it wasn’t like that in 1897, when the Requiem was first performed at that year’s Birmingham Triennial Festival. This premiere, on 6 October at Birmingham Town Hall, was thus the last major choral commission for the famous festival before the 1900 debut of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, a point at which British music arguably changed for ever. The premiere of Stanford’s Requiem itself served to raise a few eyebrows, as a faintly condescending review in The Musical Times demonstrated:
The composer did not shrink from the task of preparing a Requiem which should reflect the spirit and feeling of Roman Catholic ceremonial … From the evidence of the new work, he might have been all his life engaged in writing church music for the sensitive and passionate Latin peoples.
It’s a perplexing perspective, because you could hardly accuse Stanford’s Anglican church music of lacking sensitivity or passion. Indeed, his liturgical works—his hymns, anthems, services and organ music—are still widely used in church worship today, and valued for that very richness and emotion. It is undeniable that Stanford served to inject vibrant new life into the English choral tradition, bringing an almost symphonic ambition to music intended for worship.
And though it’s his church music that’s held in highest regard today, Stanford was indeed a composer of seven symphonies, as well as nine operas. His ‘Irish’ Symphony, No 3, was much admired by influential German conductor Hans von Bülow, who took it to Hamburg and Berlin, and even by Gustav Mahler, who conducted it in New York.
Stanford had begun composing at the remarkable age of four, during an upbringing in a well-off and highly musical Dublin household. He had an early march in D flat major performed at a Dublin pantomime when he was just eight, and a year earlier had given his first piano recital.
He went on to make England his home, studying at Cambridge, where he graduated second to last in his year in Classics, but where he had also devoted most of his time and energy to driving up standards in the Cambridge University Musical Society, with ruthless determination. So successful was Stanford that he secured the services of legendary Hungarian-born violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim to lead the British premiere of the first symphony by his beloved Brahms in 1877, after a performance of the same composer’s Ein deutsches Requiem the previous year. Stanford undertook further musical study in Leipzig with the ultra-conservative Carl Reinecke, under a regime so strict (and, Stanford felt, fruitless) that it no doubt encouraged the young composer to push against the older man’s strictures, and thereby become far more forward-looking than might otherwise have been the case.
Stanford later became a hugely influential teacher himself, as a founding professor at London’s Royal College of Music, where he worked from 1883 at the age of thirty until his retirement. His students there sound like a roll-call of British composing talent from the early twentieth century: Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Herbert Howells, Rebecca Clarke, Frank Bridge and Arthur Bliss, among many others. He had clearly learned from Reinecke, however, in terms of his own teaching methods. Stanford was a notoriously hard taskmaster who set immensely high standards and enforced a strict set of traditional values he expected to be observed, likely coaxing his own protégés to quietly rebel and develop their own distinctive musical styles. Ironically, Stanford felt bitterly aggrieved when his own music was increasingly eclipsed by that of the young Edward Elgar in the years before the First World War—all the more so since he had given Elgar sterling support as a struggling young musician. Stanford had his revenge, albeit indirectly, in the years following the Great War, however, when the music of his own pupils began to shine more brightly than that of Elgar.
Stanford first encountered the paintings of revered neo-classicist Lord Frederic Leighton at the age of just ten, on his very first trip to England. The two men would go on to become close friends—helped, no doubt, by Leighton’s own deep love of music, and by their shared artistic values of a reverence for past styles and principles, a belief in the overwhelming power of beauty, and a Romantic opulence tempered by a Classical restraint. It was the Catholic Leighton’s death in January 1896 that prompted Stanford to compose his Requiem, which perhaps provides a touchingly simple anwer to our opening question. It is a deeply personal, tender and intimate setting of the Catholic Mass text, as befits a work written in memory of a friend, and also one that focuses—like Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem which Stanford had brought to Cambridge two decades earlier—on themes of consolation and renewal, never on the terrors of judgement and damnation.
And though it is conceived on a grand scale—bringing together four vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra—and blends both the symphonic and operatic sides of Stanford’s earlier output, the composer channels all of his ambitious forces and aims to the service of clarity, simplicity and a directness of expression. His choir sings more often in hymn-like harmonies than in complex counterpoint (though there’s a bit of that), his vocal soloists are markedly differentiated in their grander, more operatic lines, and Stanford ensures that his seven movements are vividly characterized and strongly distinctive.
Three relatively short movements begin the work. Listen out for the halting, descending line with which Stanford launches his opening Introit: it’s the theme that brings together the entire Requiem, returning again and again in different guises throughout the movements, and always a consoling, reassuring presence. From there the Introit develops as music of hushed reverence, save for blazing harmonies at the choir’s mention of ‘light perpetual’. The faster-moving Kyrie contrasts choral and solo sections, and also wavers teasingly between its opening darker minor and brighter major-key passages. Stanford places his four soloists in the spotlight in the soft Gradual—notably the solo soprano, who is accompanied by solo flute and violin atop shimmering strings.
Stanford’s Sequence is by far the Requiem’s longest movement, and is cast, almost like an extended operatic scene, across several distinct sections. But rather than immersing us in hell and damnation, as found in many Requiem settings, his opening ‘Dies irae’ instead hints at tumult to come, later erupting in a brilliant, blazing ‘Tuba mirum’. After a consoling ‘Iudex ergo’ built over a tolling bass-line, and striding energy in the scurrying string scales and growling brass at ‘Confutatis maledictis’, Stanford ultimately ends his movement with a quiet, appropriately prayerful ‘Pie Jesu’, which also sees the return of the Requiem’s hesitant opening theme high in the violins.
The Offertorium unfolds as a gentle, optimistic, richly scored march, while Stanford divides the choir’s soprano and alto sections in two to give the Sanctus a particularly delicate, ethereal quality. He marks the extended orchestral opening of his Agnus Dei as having the tempo of a funeral march, and the instruction couldn’t be clearer: this is dark music that faces death squarely. It is soon answered, however, by the rippling, reassuring accompaniment to the tenor solo in the Lux aeterna, which ultimately brings the Requiem to a luminous, thoughtful close—complete with one final memory of the work’s halting opening theme.
David Kettle © 2023