Kitty Whately mezzo-soprano
Gareth Brynmor John baritone
Susie Allan piano

SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0655

I still remember as a small child in midsummer, being reluctantly forced into bed in the early evening. Sunlight was still streaming through closed curtains, and I could hear older boys playing loudly in the street. How unfair was that! 

This is the subject of the first of Stanford’s Children’s Songs, a setting of a lovely poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson’s nine poems paint the world plausibly from a child’s point of view, eg, tree climbing in ‘Foreign Lands’ – these foreign lands turn out to be next door’s garden. 

The following four poems by Tennyson are a little more difficult, but two of the later poems by Winifred Mary Letts (1882 – 1972), The Winds of Bethlehem where the four winds bow down before the baby Jesus, or The Monkey’s Carol in which an organ grinder’s monkey, clad in a red jacket and little hat, remembers his childhood in the jungle where ‘I slept at night’. The ‘taste of mangoes in my mouth’ whereas now ‘I am trembling in the cold’ would certainly appeal to the kindly imaginations of children, especially with regard to animals. 

Are any of the songs designed for children to sing? Certainly not. Rhythmically, and possibly melodically, they are too difficult, although Little Snowdrop in Songs from the Elfin Pedlar, poems by Helen Douglas Adam (1909 – 93) with its repetitive short lines might just work. What all these songs do brilliantly is to remind adults of how they used to feel and think as children.

What about the music? Stanford’s writing for piano, possibly a little like Schubert’s or Britten’s intensify the emotions of the words. Susie Allan plays her accompaniments delicately but with great feeling. Baritone Gareth Brynmor John and mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately sing sometimes as duettists in harmony and otherwise separately. Both have that special English art-song sound that makes the music shine. 

There are 38 songs, some with graphic accompaniments as in The Hoofs of the Horses, but all with a brightness and clarity that is instantly appealing. Stanford lived until 1924 when music had begun to make radical changes. How splendid it is that Stanford’s late English romantic style is coming back into fashion. Even Schoenberg once wrote that ‘There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major’.

Review by Alan Cooper