United Kingdom Stanford, Farrar, Kelly, Ravel: Kiandra Howarth (soprano), Jess Dandy (contralto), Ruari Bowen (tenor), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales / Adrian Partington (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 27.10.2018. (PCG)
Ernest Farrar – Rhapsody No. 1 ‘The Open Road’
Frederick Septimus Kelly – Elegy for strings ‘In memoriam Rupert Brooke’
Maurice Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin
Charles Villiers Stanford – Mass Via Victrix (world première)
It seems quite extraordinary that a major work by a composer such as Stanford should only now be receiving its first performance, one hundred years after it was written; but such is the case with the composer’s mass Via Victrix. It received its première under the circumstances which were earlier outlined – together with some speculations on the work’s previous neglect – in an extensive interview on this site (click here) between John Quinn and Adrian Partington, the conductor of this performance. In fact, the work has never been totally shrouded in obscurity, since the vocal score was published by Boosey & Co in 1920 (when one solitary movement was given a performance). I was able to obtain a copy thanks to the invaluable offices of the ISMLP website. Like many vocal scores, it gave only a general overview of the piece, although the influence of Beethoven in particular on the closing Dona nobis pacem was evident, as the earlier interview had already pinpointed. The performance here, using a newly prepared full score and orchestral material, was mounted as part of the BBC celebrations of the end of the First World War, whose dead this mass was originally intended to commemorate.
In fact, apart from the unexpected recurrence of the word pax in the final bars of the Gloria, the echoes of Beethoven in the Dona nobis pacem were the only real indicators in this mass of the presence of war in the background of its composition. The recitative contralto entry on the words Agnus Dei are indeed a very close imitation of the similar passage in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and this is likewise followed by an instrumental military march leading to the prayer for peace. The march itself is more straightforward than Beethoven’s charge into chaos and discord, and the final resolution in Stanford’s piece is in consequence more easily achieved. In fact, one gets the distinct impression that the employment of the religious text at times almost gets in the way of the idea of a commemoration of the war dead. It is perhaps noteworthy that the best of the choral pieces written in the aftermath of the horrors of the trenches were those which employed exclusively or predominantly secular texts – Elgar’s The Spirit of England, Delius’s Requiem, Holst’s Ode to Death, Finzi’s Requiem da camera, Foulds’s World Requiem, Bliss’s Morning Heroes and Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis pacem foremost among them.
But this is perhaps to belabour Stanford’s Via Victrix for not being something that one might have expected, rather than for what it actually is. And it is a very effective setting in its own right of the liturgical text of the Roman Catholic mass replete with many imaginative touches, such as the tortured choral jabs in the Crucifixus, and magnificent climaxes in the central and closing sections of the Gloria and the Sanctus. The scoring for the quartet of solo singers, more often employed as a sort of semi-chorus in contrast to the main body of the choir than as soloists in their own right, is well-integrated and subtly blended. There are occasional points where Stanford seems to be about to set out on the course of a rigidly academic fugue, but he reins himself in and builds his climaxes in a less pedagogic fashion. Sometimes too his repetition of phrases is too literal, not screwing the tension up to a greater height as one might have wished; but such episodes never overstay their welcome. The scoring, and the sometimes unexpected harmonic contrasts, are masterful.
The performance, which was the subject of a live video relay on the BBC iPlayer, was also recorded for future broadcast on 5 November and – we are informed – was scheduled for release on CD by Lyrita in due course. (The audience was asked to leave at the end to allow for some patching sessions to be undertaken, although apart from occasional noises in the hall the performance seemed to be fine from my following of the vocal score – one clearly intentional amendment apart.) The singing of the solo quartet was excellently blended, perhaps the male singers slightly more mellifluous than the women, although Kiandra Howarth negotiated with deceptive ease some decidedly tricky passages at the outset of the Agnus Dei. The choral writing throughout was considerate (the model Missa Solemnis neatly sidestepped here!) and the singing was gloriously controlled over some passages of extreme dynamic contrast. All in all, thanks to Jeremy Dibble, who contributed a valuable programme note, and to BBC Wales for letting us hear a score which certainly does not deserve complete neglect; it will presumably make rapid advances among amateur choral societies who have embraced Stanford’s Requiem in recent years. Thanks, too, to BBC Wales for providing texts and translations as an insert to the programme.
The concert had opened with an orchestral rhapsody by Ernest Farrar – one of Stanford’s favourite students – indeed his first surviving orchestral work The Open Road written in 1908. The choice of work seemed perhaps surprising – more appropriate to the theme of ‘music for the fallen’ would surely have been the Heroic Elegy which Farrar composed a matter of months before his death on the Western Front in 1918, a work of searing passion and originality; a lamenting version of the mediaeval Agincourt Carol is set against a battlefield scene with the sounding of ‘sad bugles’ which anticipate similar passages in Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony. By contrast, the Rhapsody No.1 (a second work in the form is missing) is relatively straightforward, a skirling bagpipe-like theme surrounding an Elgarian central section; but it was excellently performed here, and chances to hear music by Farrar in the concert hall are rare enough to make one grateful for the opportunity to encounter anything.
Although Frederick Septimus Kelly was four years older than Farrar, he seems to have been taking longer to reach his compositional maturity when he died on the Somme in 1916. His music seems to have been generally more conventional, more comfortable; but his Elegy for strings written in memory of his friend Rupert Brooke speaks of something much deeper. The scoring, for carefully balanced bodies of strings, plus solo violin and harp, has clear parallels with the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis written some five years earlier. While RVW uses his divided strings to move the music purposefully forward, Kelly allows the cadences to settle uneasily before taking off in sometimes unexpected directions. The intricate and delicate filigree in the central section which underpins the solo violin (Lesley Hatfield at her unparalleled best here) almost conjures up impressions of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
The four movements from Ravel’s piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin which he selected for orchestration are of course delicacy themselves, although the playful nature of the music itself made a strange contrast to its surroundings despite the fact that Ravel dedicated each of the movements to a friend killed in the war. Even so, this was an illuminating and enlightening selection of music commemorating the dead of the First World War and matched the similarly exploratory programme that Adrian Partington had compiled for the anniversary of the Somme two years earlier. His conducting here was a model of fine control and sympathy. One’s only regret that there is so much further music from this era which we rarely hear, and which deserves to be revived for modern audiences. The hall was packed for this concert, with hardly an empty seat in sight. Perhaps the vein could be further mined in future years. In the meantime, BBC Wales are doing us proud with a performance of the Britten War Requiem – surely the epitome of commemorative scores – on Armistice Day.
Paul Corfield Godfrey