Birmingham University Voices and the CBSO gave a welcome airing of a not so often performed work, and a work which most certainly deserves to be more well known.
Stanford’s Requiem, commissioned in 1896 to be performed at the Birmingham Triennial Festival, was written in apparent “total devastation” at the death of his closest and, some suggest “most intimate” friend, neo-classic artist (and probably gay) Lord Frederic Leighton, may not possess the high drama of some other, more familiar, settings of this often complex text, but it does have more than its fair share of melodic invention and a genuine deep-felt sincerity and humanity. This is clearly a deeply personal and affecting composition, and, yes: it is very British, mixed perhaps with more than a hint of Stanford’s Irish roots, together with lashings of influences of operatic and later German symphonic form and style.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing any composer trying to set the whole of the Latin text of the Requiem is how to deal with the incredibly long, complex text of the “Sequence” Dies Irae. Of course many composers of the Requiem Mass have worked around this troublesome text by either abridging, modifying, or mostly replacing it with something else.
However, one really has to say “hats off” to Sir Charles Villiers for attempting to set the whole of the Dies Irae: truly an awesome task. However, Stanford’s setting is one of the most sedate and workmanlike I have ever come across in the genre, and, very strangely, not a fugue in sight! Frankly, it is rather dull.
There is no wailing and gnashing of teeth here, more a case of keep calm and please queue at the Pearly Gates in an orderly fashion. On the other hand, the declamatory Rex Tremendae has a nobility of stature and the Lacrimosa is, well, a real tear-jerker, displaying strong evidence of Stanford’s work as an composer of opera.
Indeed the work as a whole is quite operatic, and most people don’t realise Stanford wrote nine-and-a-bit operas. So, if we hear echoes of Verdi, and of both Verdi’s operas and, of course, his own operatic setting of the Requiem (1874) it is hardly surprising.
Stanford’s Requiem is also highly symphonic, and, again, most of us have never heard any of Stanford’s, really rather good, seven symphonies. Indeed, Gustav Mahler thought very highly of Stanford’s (probably the best) Third Symphony and conducted it on his visit to America.
The symphonic elements in this Requiem shine a light on the composer’s most enduring musical influences, and indeed the bedrock of his musical training, that of the German symphonic repertoire of the later nineteenth century, particularly Brahms. Stanford both adored – and in 1876 conducted – Brahms’s German Requiem which, similar to Stanford’s, is a deeply personal – sometimes referred to as “most human” – response to the death of someone close to him; in Brahms’s case, his mother. There are unmistakable similarities between the settings by both composers.
Under the superb direction of conductor Martyn Brabbins, plus the ever-towering & ingenious work of chorus masters Simon Halsey and Julian Wilkins, together with four fine soloists, this was an excellent, youthful performance. If one had any gripes it would be that, try as I might, I could hear very little clarity of diction coming from the choir, so had it not been for the soloists, I simply had no idea of whereabouts in the Requiem we were!
Also, with a massive chorus of 63 young upper voices and only 39 chaps, there were sometimes problems around choral balance. However, when we did finally get a fugue – in the Quam Olim of the Offertorium – the choruses’ eyes were rivetted on Maestro Brabbins, and they made a terrific sound: totally in time, and with counterpoints beautifully understood and delivered.
Similarly, in the Sanctus, which calls for divided sopranos & altos, the harmonic textures – and even most of the words – were superbly delivered. In this movement I suddenly found myself looking around for children’s voices, particularly in the soprano and alto sections, because the singers sounded just like sweet innocent children. Of course, there was no children’s choir, and I wondered if maybe the sops and alts had been specifically asked and coached to sound like children at this point; perhaps in an attempt to describe the sound of cherubic angels in heaven? Whatever the answer, this was a performance by mostly young university students, and this moment of childlike innocence was wonderfully affecting.
Overall, a delightful, youthful and profoundly human interpretation of Stanford’s otherwise rather workmanlike Requiem. Next time, dear choristers, let’s have more attention to diction and of clearly communicating the words of the text!