Stanford Requiem Op.63 (1896)
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano), James Way (tenor), Ross Ramgobin (baritone), University of Birmingham Voices, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 25 July 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Its official season may have ended over a week before, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was heard this evening in a rare revival of a work whose premiere it gave 125 years ago at the Birmingham Triennial Festival – that of the Requiem by Charles Villiers Stanford.
As historian Paul Rodmell recounted in his programme note, this Festival saw the launching of a host of major choral works during its 128 years of existence – notably Mendelssohn’s Elijah in 1846 and Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius in 1900. That the latter piece was soon regarded as trailblazing despite a largely unsuccessful premiere might be thought ironic given that, just three years earlier, Stanford’s Requiem had been received with some acclaim only to fall into obscurity along with the greater part of his sizable output in the wake of the First World War.
Not unexpectedly, Brahms instead of Berlioz or Verdi is the main presence – thus the Introit with its understated opening theme that recurs often in the work, while its distinction between sombre choral and aspiring vocal music is further emphasized by those expressive contrasts in the Kyrie. The vocalists come into their own in a Gradual whose orchestral textures find this composer at his most felicitous. A telling foil, moreover, to the Sequence with its menacing Dies irae or proclamatory Tuba mirum, then what follows bringing the soloists into individual focus: hence the heightened fervour of Carolyn Sampson, the more circumspect eloquence of Marta Fontanals-Simmons, slightly hectoring impulsiveness of James Way, and the brooding power of Ross Ramgobin; though the sequence overall exudes an almost symphonic cohesion.
Arguably the finest portion, however, comprises the final three movements. The Offertorium makes much of the contrast between warmly martial and intensively fugal sections, while the Sanctus has an ethereal radiance which carries through the ruminative Benedictus and into deftly resounding Hosannas. The funereal orchestral music preceding the Agnus Dei affords the darkest emotion of the whole work, but this only enhances the ensuing Lux aeterna with its serene fatalism that Frederic Leighton – artist and friend of Stanford, whose death early in 1896 was the catalyst – would doubtless have appreciated. Throughout this performance, the University of Birmingham Voices responded with alacrity to choral writing whose poise and translucency were always in evidence – not least in the most earnestly contrapuntal passages.
Special praise for Martyn Brabbins who, whether or not he considers it a masterpiece, directed this work with unwavering conviction. The balance between soloists or chorus and orchestra might largely take care of itself, but orchestral textures need astute handling if these are not to risk uniformity or even monotony and Brabbins drew a committed response from the CBSO such that the autumnal hues of Stanford’s writing came through unimpeded. Good to hear this performance is being released commercially, as it did full justice to a largely neglected work.
A last thought. One of Stanford’s earlier choral pieces is The Resurrection, a setting of the ode by Friedrich Klopstock. Maybe when the CBSO performs Mahler’s Second Symphony in a future season, it would be worth programming these assuredly very different works together?