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Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)


University of Birmingham Voices, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Hyperion
Recording details: July 2022
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Phil Rowlands
Release date: May 2023
Total duration: 74 minutes 12 seconds

Cover artwork: Time, Death and Judgement (1884) by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)
Photo © Watts Gallery / © Trustees of Watts Gallery / Bridgeman Images

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.


‘Brabbins, who truly understands the language of this music, judges the tempos and balance of the ensemble with instinctive sensitivity; his handling of the chorus—the University of Birmingham Voices—is outstanding, and he genuinely brings out the luminosity of Stanford’s lustrous orchestration, which is splendidly executed by the CBSO, especially in the lovely solos of the 'Dies irae', the arresting climax of the ‘Lacrimosa’, the swirling Rhinegold-like figurations of the 'Sanctus' and the solemn funeral cortege of the 'Agnus' … the chorus sing throughout with a youthful clarity, beauty of tone and lovely intonation … in 1997 the Requiem was issued by Marco Polo … a most welcome recording at the time, but there is much more to learn about Stanford’s choral masterpiece from the more cohesive architecture, sound and élan of this vibrant new issue from Hyperion. For anyone interested in British choral music of the period, it is a must!’ (Gramophone)

‘Martyn Brabbins has the music—and the traditions on which it draws—intuitively under his radar. Impeccably he sculpts the flow and sweep that is so often Stanford’s expressive default position, yet no less impressive is the purposefulness and energy of the fugal ‘Quam olim’ and the ethereal poise of the ‘Sanctus’. With fine singing from chorus and soloists alike the Requiem discloses one of Stanford’s greatest achievements’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘Rarely recorded, there’s a sense of the special occasion about this new one from the University of Birmingham Voices and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins … Brabbins embraces the Romantic grandeur of Stanford’s vision’ (BBC Record Review)

‘Rarely performed and long overshadowed by his justly beloved compositions for the Anglican choral canon, Stanford’s Requiem merits deeper investigation and wider exposure. It has a curiously optimistic mien, given the sense of grief, gravitas and doom that settings of requiem are expected to impart. Yet, as this fine account by Brabbins, the CBSO and stellar soloists and choir demonstrate, the composer’s persuasive response is imbued with compassion and celebration as much as it is by fear and fatalism’ (The Sunday Times)

‘Throughout, Martyn Brabbins’s persuasive tempos and wholesome approach pay many dividends and make the strongest possible case for a score that deserves its place in the limelight that this release now affords it’ (colinscolumn.com)» More

‘The CBSO plays splendidly throughout. The collective response is sonorous and there’s an abundance of expert solo work to enjoy and admire The performance could not be in better hands than those of Martyn Brabbins. His conducting demonstrates evident empathy with the score and it seems clear that he brings out the best in all the performers. Phil Rowlands led the engineering team for this recording and the sound is first rate. The climaxes open up warmly and the listener gets a good sense of the perspectives in the hall. Stanford’s Requiem is a noble work and it’s an important score among his compositions. Like much of the rest of his output, it fell into neglect after his death but, as this fine performance demonstrates, that neglect was wholly unjustified. 2024 will mark the centenary of his death … this recording of the Requiem offers us something to whet our appetite for the centenary year. It was in Birmingham that the work was first performed; 125 years later, the city did Stanford’s memory proud’ (MusicWeb International)

‘This is a genuinely excellent disc in every respect. Martyn Brabbins has a sure and certain grasp of the scale and sweep of this substantial 74:26 work but in many ways it is the summation of all the individual excellence that combine to make this such a satisfying listening experience. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra play with all their usual skill and sensitivity. A major plus is the singing of the University of Birmingham Voices with the liner listing around 100 voices trained by Simon Halsey and Julian Wilkins. The two chorus masters have a done tremendous job with the singing alert and responsive, vibrant with exciting attack or melting warmth as required. Add to that a fine quartet of soloists led by soprano Carolyn Sampson fully up to the quasi-operatic drama of her part and you can see that the performing side of this recording is in fine fettle. But another important element is the actual recording and production. Symphony Hall Birmingham is a well-known and admired performing and recording venue but engineer Phil Rowlands and producer Andrew Keener have created an aural space that has the richness and sense of space this type of work requires. Lastly the balances achieved with such large performing groups is likewise excellent right down to the solo quartet being integrated into the choir and orchestra so that their parts are always present but never synthetically dominant … I am not sure when I have enjoyed the actual performance of a work of this type more in recent times … a great deal of the credit for this must go both to the choir trainers but also to Martyn Brabbins who once again proves himself to be especially adept at handling large-scale and complex scores. I would think that even the infamously hard to please Stanford would be grudgingly delighted with such an involving and impressive performance’ (MusicWeb International)

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One of the big questions behind the Requiem Mass for the dead by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford is why an Irish-born composer so steeped in Protestantism, and still admired today for his deeply felt Anglican church music, would write a setting of a ceremony that’s so central to the Catholic faith.

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

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