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Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)

Choral Music

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor) Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Studio Master:
Studio Master:
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: July 2017
Total duration: 80 minutes 56 seconds

Cover artwork: Portrait of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford by William Orpen (1878-1931)
Reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

A programme spanning the variety and sheer emotional range of Stanford’s Anglican choral music (with a notable contribution from Owain Park in the Fantasia and Toccata for organ). You are unlikely to hear quite so stirring a rendition of ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ for some time to come …




‘Recordings of Stanford’s great choral anthems are not short on the ground, but if any choir has justification to return to them it’s Trinity Cambridge … by taking the music seriously, treating it with respect but not reverence, [Layton] gives it a freshness calculated to disarm even the staunchest of musical non-believers’ (Gramophone)

‘There is so much to cherish here, whether Stanford is punching the air or praying in quiet wonderment’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘This CD is a fine tribute to Stanford’ (Choir & Organ)» More

‘We have long needed a first-class, user-friendly collection of sacred Stanford. Now we have one’ (Limelight, Australia)» More

After his apprenticeship in Dublin and a short period at Queens’ College, Cambridge, as one of Cambridge University’s first organ scholars, Charles Villiers Stanford migrated to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1873 to take up the position of organist owing to the failing health and death of John Larkin Hopkins. Inheriting a renovated organ and an expanding choir with its own choir school, Stanford found himself in an advantageous position to further his career. A capable organist, he promoted Easter Term recitals in Trinity College Chapel and, as a lover of English church music, he endeavoured to improve the choir by increasing the number of boy choristers, pensioning off old lay clerks and advertising for new blood including the appointment of undergraduate choral scholars. As the Master of Trinity, W H Thompson, commented to Archdeacon John Allen (of Salop) in November 1877:

We had B[isho]p C. Wordsworth here yesterday at S. Mary’s. He came to us to early tea and went to Chapel at 6. He thinks the Services greatly improved since his time, and so they ought to be, for we spend twice as much on our Choir as we did 10 years ago.

Recognizing his phenomenal talent, the College Seniority (later to become the College Council) granted him time to study in Leipzig and Berlin between 1874 and 1876. Returning to Trinity in January 1877, Stanford’s head was full of new German symphonic music which soon found its way into the pages of his first major publication for the Anglican liturgy, the Morning, Communion and Evening Service in B flat, performed for the first time at Trinity in 1879. Throughout his time at Trinity, which lasted until his final service on Christmas Day 1892, Stanford wrote numerous anthems and services, much of which was sung in the weekday and Sunday services in the college. Among the best known products of this time were the Three Latin Motets, Op 38. In November 1891 we know that Novello was considering them for publication through a letter Stanford wrote to Alfred Littleton: ‘Don’t forget to send my Latin introits back if you don’t want to publish them; I have no other scores, and we use them pretty frequently.’ Novello decided not to take them on and it was not until 1905 that Boosey published them, not as ‘introits’ but as ‘motets’. We also know from the college music lists that Justorum animae (‘The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God’) was sung in Trinity Chapel on at least two occasions (24 February 1888 and 24 February 1892 on the Feast of St Matthias, apostle and martyr). A setting of the famous lines from the Book of Wisdom, Stanford’s evocation of celestial peace frames a more chromatic central section (‘et non tanget illos tormentum malitiae’) whose turbulence subsequently throws into relief the composer’s exquisite handling of diatonic harmony in the reprise (‘Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori’). A ternary design also frames the medieval hymn Caelos ascendit hodie celebrating Christ’s ascension. Drawing its inspiration from the great antiphonal Venetian tradition of the seventeenth century, the motet’s sense of jubilation is ultimately captured in the final ‘Amen’. Here robust contrary motion in the outer voices ascends and descends from an initial unison E over the interval of a tenth, coalescing in the most vibrant of euphonious plagal cadences. For Beati quorum via (Psalm 119: 1), a more restrained, pastoral prayer, Stanford’s instrumental treatment is manifested in the skilful sonata structure whose two contrasting thematic subjects are defined by the opening words (‘Beati quorum via’) and the secondary phrase (‘qui ambulant in lege Domini’). Both ideas, in the recapitulation, are subsequently reworked with consummate legerdemain.

The Fantasia and Toccata in D minor, Op 57, was completed in July 1894, though not published until 1902 by Houghton, and, later, by Stainer & Bell. It was dedicated to his colleague at the RCM, Sir Walter Parratt, who was Professor of Organ there as well as Director of Music at St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Parratt (along with his older contemporary, Stainer) was one of the first genuine virtuoso organists in England at the end of the nineteenth century, and his importance to the development of the organ profession can be witnessed in his organ recitals which abjured the more traditional programming of arrangements of the ‘classics’ in favour of original works for the organ. The fantasia, with its strong opening flourish, mimics Bach’s fantasia and fugue in G minor, BWV542, though Stanford’s gesticulative dissonances at the conclusion to each phrase are thoroughly romantic as is the panoply of chromatic progressions. Bachian too is the secondary allegretto con moto section in compound time. A repeat of the first animated paragraph in F major is concluded by a reprise of the allegretto, now transformed in D major, and a coda in which the initial flourishes are presented in dialogue between the hands. The toccata invokes the mood and figuration of the ‘Dorian’ toccata and fugue, BWV538. A ‘free’ form, like its fantasia counterpart, it has an aura of improvisation, but, as one would expect, this apparent ‘looseness’ conceals a sophisticated concerto design in which the opening figure for pedals constitutes a functioning ritornello, punctuating the important formal modulations to related keys, while the toccata material for the hands constitutes the ever-expanding, tonally fluid episodes. An exciting, dynamically rhythmical work, it concludes, like many toccatas, with an extended tonic pedal and a majestic Buxtehude-like gesture for full organ.

The remaining works on this recording date from much later in Stanford’s career when his reputation as a composer of church music had become firmly established. Although well known as a free-standing anthem, O for a closer walk with God was originally designed to accompany (as an optional concluding statement) the last of Stanford’s Six Bible Songs, Op 113, ‘A Song of Wisdom’. Indeed, the anthem formed the last of Six Hymns each of which was based on a familiar hymn tune. The source of O for a closer walk with God was the Scottish Psalter (1635) with words by W Cowper allied with the old Psalm tune Caithness. Using three verses (1, 3 and 5) from the original five, Stanford shaped a chorale fantasia around the melody in which the intricacies of harmony, counterpoint, phrase-length, register and organ accompaniment are manipulated with increasing dexterity, particularly in the highly expressive final verse (‘So shall my walk be close with God, Calm and serene my frame’) with its combination of fervour and spiritual confidence.

Stanford’s Morning, Communion and Evening Service in C major, Op 115, dates from 1909 when it was first published by Stainer & Bell. A regal orchestration of the Te Deum for organ, three trumpets, four trombones and timpani was made by the composer in 1910 (and is recorded here for the first time). As the longest of all the morning and evening canticles, and the first movement of a sophisticated cyclic scheme across the entire choral service for the day, the Te Deum here contains all the principal thematic seeds which permeate the rest of the work. The first of these can be heard at the opening (‘We praise thee, O God’) and is related to (and contrasted with) a secondary march idea in E flat (‘The glorious company of the apostles’). A third idea (‘When thou tookest upon thee’), in triple time, forms a transition to a second spacious melody in E flat (‘We therefore pray thee, help thy servants’) at the conclusion of which Stanford begins to recall the first two themes. And for the final paragraph (‘O Lord, have mercy upon us’), an elegiac coda, it is the opening strain that underpins the final supplication (‘Let me never be confounded’). The Benedictus, the canticle of Zachary from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, is a song a thanksgiving on the circumcision of his son, John the Baptist, and of the role he would play in the narrative of the redemption. Set as a sedate minuet, the first part of Stanford’s setting is warm-hearted and benevolent; the second (which is addressed to the Baptist) is in common time and another of the composer’s classic, memorable melodies (‘And thou, child, shall be called the Prophet of the Highest’). A brief coda (‘and to guide our feet into the way of peace’) leads to the fanfare-like ‘Gloria’ whose closing bars recall the opening of the Te Deum. Based on the third idea of the Te Deum, the Jubilate is a spritely scherzo. Though the movement is appropriately ternary in design, Stanford’s process of ‘continuing variation’ lends his form a sense of through-composition, an impression reinforced throughout by his constant reworking of the third idea from the Te Deum and by the deft variant of the opening material (‘For the Lord is gracious’) after the ‘trio’ in A flat major.

The ancient Irish tune known today as St Patrick appeared in George Petrie’s Collection of Ancient Irish Music, Part II, which Stanford edited for the Irish Literary Society in 1902. The tune, which appeared with Mrs Cecil Alexander’s metrical version of Whitley Stokes’ translation from the Irish (in Goidelica of 1866), appeared in the English Hymnal in 1906, but it was not arranged by Stanford until 1912 when it was subject to a much more elaborate treatment, becoming St Patrick’s Breastplate. Moreover, for the ‘Lorica’ verse (‘Christ be with me, Christ within me’), the tune Gartan, which Stanford had used as the basis of the fifth prelude from his Short Preludes and Postludes, Op 101, was also included. As a series of strophic variations, Stanford’s varied delivery of St Patrick, for high, low or unison voices, as well as in harmony (in both accompanied and a cappella form), adds vivid illustration to the words, as does the constant process of reharmonization and rhythmical variation in the accompaniment. In 1913 Stanford enhanced his arrangement with the addition of two trumpets, three trombones, side drum and cymbals, and, in doing so, heightened the sense of drama at such places as verse 7 (‘Against all Satan’s spells and wiles’) and verse 9 (as the stirring finale), in addition to framing the interlude of Gartan with theatrical rolls of the side drum.

Eternal Father, one of Stanford’s three Op 135 English Motets, was composed in March 1913. A setting of Robert Bridges’ final sonnet (No 69) from the collection The Growth of Love (published in 1876 and enlarged in 1890), it attempts to paraphrase and elide the pastoral ideals of the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. The sentiment of the poem, one of spiritual conviction, warmth and ardour, is reflected in the rich, yearning diatonicism of Stanford’s constantly building phrases and by the composer’s consummate handling of rich six-part textures. Conceived in three sections, the first is a rich paean, the second a more urgent reminder of man’s mortality (‘Grant body and soul’), while the third, a becalmed evocation of our redemption (‘By Thee in paths of peace Thy sheep be led’), recalls the opening material, now transformed into a message of reassurance.

For lo, I raise up, Op 145, Stanford’s most dramatic anthem, was composed in 1914, though it was left unpublished until 1939. When the strategic bombing of London began in January 1915, Stanford moved out to Windsor where it was safer and, according to E H Fellowes, he subsequently became a regular visitor to St George’s Chapel where his RCM colleague, Parratt, was organist and music director. (The manuscript of the anthem still resides in the Library of St George’s.) Horrified by the war and what he saw as Germany’s betrayal of its artistic heritage, Stanford attempted to articulate his hope for Britain’s future deliverance through the analogy of Habakkuk’s Old Testament prophecies. Set in F minor, the first part of this extended work is a turbulent affair, an indictment of the war-mongers who plundered and laid waste to the land. Yet, in the face of inexorable violence and destruction, Stanford mirrored Habakkuk’s vision of peace in a climactic statement of hope and deliverance (‘We shall not die’) in F major. Building on this declaration of spiritual confidence the momentum increases, animated by a sense of divine destiny (‘The vision is yet for the appointed time’) and an impassioned acclamation of faith (‘For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord’) which is tempered only by the gripping tranquillity of the hushed coda (‘But the Lord is in his holy temple’).

The short anthem Lighten our darkness was written as a special tribute to the choir of St George’s in March 1918. Fellowes recalled that it was sung on one or two occasions at Windsor in that year but, after that, it was forgotten. In November 1935 the anthem resurfaced after Fellowes was sent the manuscript score by Walford Davies. The intention then appears to have been to publish it, but for reasons unknown the work remained in manuscript. Here the anthem is sung in a new edition by Jeremy Dibble. The text is taken from the Third Collect of the Order for Evening Prayer, ‘for aid against all perils’ which, like its predecessor in For lo, I raise up, seems to embody something of the composer’s own personal commentary on the war. Certainly the ‘perils and dangers’ of the night loom large, and appear to support Fellowes’ suggestion that Stanford ‘had the raids in his mind when setting this Collect’. More profound, however, are the passionate, full-voiced entreaties of the opening (‘Lighten our darkness’), while the imitative phrase ‘and by thy great mercy’ expresses a deep inner longing; more emotional still is the last phase of the anthem (‘for the love of thy only Son’) whose fervent melody must surely rank as one of the most poignantly beautiful in all English church music of the period.

There was also, on 7 October 1918, just four weeks before the Armistice, the unhappy news of the death of Parry. For years he and Stanford had enjoyed a close friendship, but in recent times their relationship had become fractious. Early in 1917 a serious rift occurred which Stanford bitterly regretted. Owing in part to his wife, who played the role of intermediary, the friendship was revived but scars inevitably remained. As a symbol of his affection (and remorse) Stanford composed his Latin Magnificat for eight-part chorus in B flat, Op 164, which was completed in September 1918. Unfortunately Parry died before the work was published the following year. As an indication of the composer’s regret, the piece bore the following Latin inscription: ‘This work, which death prevented me from giving Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in life, I dedicate to his name in grief. CVS’. Although Stanford adopted traditional elements of motet style such as imitation and antiphony, the espousal of sixteenth-century techniques was but one feature of the work, for the composer also paid tribute to the florid intricacy and counterpoint of Bach whose motets he knew intimately as the one-time conductor of the Bach Choir. One thinks particularly of the effusive eight-part Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (which Stanford conducted numerous times), but one cannot help also drawing a parallel with Bach’s own Magnificat whose vigorous opening and closing music seems to resonate in the corresponding pages of Stanford’s work and to which Parry, a self-confessed devotee, had also paid homage in his own Bachian setting of 1897. Stanford’s remarkable setting is, like much of his service music and anthems, symphonic in scope, but here the treatment of the text is much more expansive and not confined by the usual constraints of the Anglican liturgy. One is immediately aware of this in the substantial tripartite opening section and in the four contrasting movements that follow in E flat (‘Quia fecit mihi magna’), C minor (‘Fecit potentiam’), and D flat (‘Esurientes implevit bonis’) before B flat is restored with the final section of text (‘Suscepit Israel’) in a splendid gathering of momentum from an initial pastoral mood to a buoyant, climactic alla breve. And to reinforce this return to the tonic, Stanford recalls the opening material in a more truncated form, using the text of the doxology. The concluding ‘Amen’, furthermore, is one of the composer’s most thrilling in its sudden epigrammatic divergence to G flat directly before the spacious final cadence.

Jeremy Dibble © 2017

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