University of Birmingham Voices
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins conductor
The world has never exactly abounded in first-rate Requiem settings, a fact which renders all the more unfortunate the persistent neglect of Stanford’s contribution to the genre. Such neglect would have astonished and annoyed Stanford himself, whose own current fame principally in connection with Anglican rites is a recent development.
This Requiem, first heard at 1897’s Birmingham Triennial Festival, elicited the admiration of none other than Verdi. As Verdi had the novelist Alessandro Manzoni in mind when writing his own Mass for the Dead, so Stanford had in mind the painter and sculptor Frederic, first Baron Leighton (like Manzoni but unlike Stanford, a Catholic). Both masters, Italian and Irish, adopted without the slightest squeamishness, fundamentally operatic styles. In Stanford’s case the result incorporates not just the occasional Verdian touch of polyphonic archaism, but traces of Wagner – especially of Rheingold’s gods en route to entering Valhalla – and of Massenet. Even Puccini is on occasion foreshadowed: one menacing A minor passage leaps across the decades to Suor Angelica.
If you possess the sole previous commercial recording of Op. 63 – a 1997 production available first on Marco Polo, afterwards on Marco Polo’s stablemate Naxos – then do hang onto it, not least since it includes, as fillers, excerpts from Stanford’s early opera The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan. As befits Martyn Brabbins’ theatrical background, Hyperion’s version demonstrates a harder dramatic punch than Marco Polo’s. It also benefits from wonderful engineering, which captures with great vividness each element of Stanford’s superb orchestration, from bass-drum thuds via trombone snarls to harp tintinnabulations. By comparison, the Marco Polo release can sound a little tepid, pale, and indistinct.
Where the newcomer consistently disappoints, and fails to dislodge its older rival, is in the solo singing. For much of the score (as with his later Missa Via Victrix) Stanford gives the solo SATB quartet block harmony, either with only discreet orchestral accompaniment, or with no accompaniment at all. Here the soloists display such ungainly vibratos that listeners will be often hard-pressed to determine the intended pitches. Marco Polo’s considerably less celebrated soloists blend better and exhibit more timbral focus. To sum up: Hyperion’s performance should be heard by all Stanfordians, but its vocal soloists’ shortcomings prevent it from being an out-and-out winner.
Review by Robert James Stove