Compositions: Overture in the Style of a Tragedy, Verdun, A Song of Agincourt
Performers: Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley
Catalogue Number: HYPERION CDA68283
No piece on this superbly engineered disc has been recorded before. The most astonishing track is the first movement from Stanford’s 1918 diptych, Verdun, a transcription of the Adagio molto from his 1917 Second Organ Sonata, dedicated to Widor. This movement belongs with early 20th-century British music’s noblest achievements anyhow; and hearing it performed in orchestral guise (for the first time since the composer’s death) arouses awe at the skill – downright Ravelian, as the booklet note observes – with which Stanford turned idiomatic keyboard invention into likewise idiomatic orchestral invention. Howard Shelley and his Ulster forces even make persuasive the almost impossibly slow metronome marking. Verdun’s second section freely treats the same (Marseillaise-dominated) material that Stanford employed for the Organ Sonata’s finale. Its original Albert Hall hearers’ wartime morale must have been duly boosted, and the concluding bars demonstrate positively Respighian explosive zeal.
Can musical nomenclature’s annals contain a bigger turn-off than Fairy Day? Fear not: this tripartite choral score from 1912 avoids childishness. Rather, it supplies a musical analogue to the fantastical tales by Lord Dunsany, Stanford’s fellow Anglo-Irishman. Although Stanford dismissed Debussy’s output as “eunuch music,” portions of Fairy Day evoke impressionism: the faun’s early-morning stroll with Mélisande, perhaps.
That Stanford and Agincourt were well attuned could be predicted; more remarkable is his Song of Agincourt’s veering between patriotic bravado and poignant rumination. The Welcome March (for Edward VII’s 1903 Dublin visit) almost out-pomps and out-circumstances Elgar. If the Overture in the Style of a Tragedy (same year) seems slightly generic, second-rate Stanford still surpasses many others’ best work. Performances, including improbably clear choral diction, do everything justice. This cannot fail to be among 2019’s most revelatory CDs.