Irish Song Cycles 

Sharon Carty mezzo soprano                                                                                                               
Benjamin Russell baritone                                                                                                                       
Finghin Collins piano     

Somm CD0681

This is surely the first time that these song cycles, five of them, have been put together on a CD, and it is a very good idea to share them between two fine singers who have ideal voices for this repertoire, and they are accompanied with such understanding and care. This is, after all, the centenary year of Stanford’s death, and anyone who thought, as I once did, that here we have a composer who only wrote attractive and useful church music, will have a pleasant surprise.

The title of the third song of the first cycle on the disc, Cushendall gives its name to the CD. Words are by the rather eccentric Ulster poet John Stevenson. It dates from 1910 and is Stanford’s Op 118. At 25 minutes it’s the longest of the works included. Seven poems were chosen by Stanford from a collection entitled Pat McCarty: His Rhymes published in 1903. The second cycle, Fire of Turf, is again seven poems, this time by Winifred Letts (d.1972) who was born in England but who lived in Ireland for most of her long life. Next comes A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster Op 140 which also uses texts by Winifred Letts. Both of these cycles were completed in 1913. The other cycles are Blarney Ballads, (1893) three songs with words by Charles Graves (d.1944). Finally, there are two songs from Stanford’s successful opera, Shamus O’ Brien Op 61, first heard in 1896, and published separately with piano.

There is something wonderfully home-spun about several texts such as Daddy-long-Legs and Cowslip Time. Stanford often responds with music which is melodic and almost folk-like. He can however hit the serious button when required, as in Night, which ends the Cushendell cycle, and he does not steer away from some quite searching harmonies in the turbulence of The West Wind. Some of the songs were, and possibly still might be performed as separate entities. (I myself used to sing The Bold Unbiddable Child from the Songs from Leinster and The Wearing of the Blue from the Blarney Ballads). Sometimes there is a hymn-like quality in the word setting, as in Grandeur which opens the Leinster Songs which concerns a lady little cared for in her lifetime but whom the whole village visits at her wake.

These songs were composed against the backdrop of the rise in the prospect of Irish independence. Stanford had also been composing his wonderful Irish Rhapsodies since about 1902, and these song cycles would certainly have tapped into the bourgeoning interest in Irish history and culture. This is an excellent addition to the British Song repertoire.

Review by Gary Higginson