The pilgrimage through Stanford’s music continues with this harvesting of works not otherwise recorded and dating from the early 1900s, when he was in his fifties, to the years when he saw the death of many of his pupils in the Great War.
Right from the veritable shriek that starts Overture in the style of a tragedy we know that the Ulster Orchestra, Howard Shelley and Hyperion (engineers: Ben Connellan and Annabel Connellan) are deadly serious and accomplish what they accomplish with brilliance. For a start the Ulster Orchestra have a date with destiny when it comes to Stanford and that staunch commitment stretches back to the days of its predecessor the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra. Otherwise believed not to have been previously performed, this Overture was premiered by the same orchestra but conducted by Kenneth Montgomery in 2010. Jeremy Dibble in his searching and satisfying liner note quite adroitly says that, for all its brevity, it is cut from the same flax as the dark-cloud scudding and brooding storms of Brahms’ Tragic Overture and Parry’s fine Overture to an Unwritten Tragedy. Dibble also says that it is reminiscent of the music from Stanford’s Oedipus Rex and that its impetus might well have been Sophoclean tragedy. This is a theme further developed by Bantock in his Overture to a Greek Tragedy (1911).
Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue is in two tracks. While the Op 90 overture has some poetic episodes, the March is all subdued poetry with a stern yet yielding dignity not that far removed from Elgar but with a dash of La Marseillaise in the March and the Epilogue - giving it a more generous profile in the last movement. The work is an orchestration of the last two movements of his Organ Sonata No 2 in G minor Eroica, dedicated to Widor and ‘the Great Country to which he belongs’. Stanford added a superscription to the score: ‘On ne passera pas’ said to be the words of General Robert Nivelle. As a call to arms it may be familiar in its Spanish version as ‘No pasarán’ used during the Spanish Civil War. The work, especially in the epilogue, majors on ‘courage and resilience’ but there is nothing of tragedy or disillusion. It comes from a more innocent age but what it does has sensational bite.
Verdun is an occasional piece and so is the strenuous A Welcome March (‘Céad míle fáilte’—a hundred thousand welcomes). The occasion was Edward VII’s state visit to Ireland in 1903 with its strenuous itinerary. Mr Dibble reports that the work was to be played at the various stop-offs ‘by such ensembles as regimental bands’. It includes reference to ‘Irish tunes such as ‘Oh for the swords of former time’ and … ‘Let Erin remember the days of old’’.
Fairy Day consists of Three Idylls for Female Chorus (SSAA) and Small Orchestra (Fairy Dawn; Fairy Noon; Fairy Night). This is a triumph of feathery lyricism and sets words (laid out in full in the booklet) by William Allingham (1824–1889). Stanford is heard here in almost impressionistic delicacy and as for the prominent role of the choir (Codetta, including the nicely fragile solo soprano of Kerry Stamp in the outer sections) it at times evokes his part-song The Blue Bird. The whole piece fits rather neatly with Elgar’s Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands, Spanish Serenade and Starlight Express. Fairy Day in this version was first given in 2011 by the Ulster Youth Choir and Ulster Orchestra conducted by Howard Shelley. If the earlier works can veer off into pomp and bluster this stands at the other pole right next to its gentle contemporary Proserpine by Parry.
Stanford’s meaty tone poem A Song of Agincourt may be counted in the company of the six Irish Rhapsodies. It comes from the same year as Verdun and is a stirring piece. The use of the medieval English song rings true without the queasy and slightly overcooked overtones of La Marseillaise in Verdun’s Heroic Epilogue. There are some nicely judged poetic moments to set off the sometimes Tchaikovskian passion and fury of the brass and the violins. The work was written ‘in commemoration of those members of the Royal College of Music who fought, worked, and died for their country (1914–18)’.
This disc is a resoundingly confident contribution to the Stanford revival. After Lyrita’s Via Victrix and At the Abbey Gate and Dutton’s disc of the early concertos, how many more otherwise unrecorded Stanford works are there to come? To be celebrated.