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Music review: Mass Via Victrix, by Charles Villiers Stanford, performed by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales

09 November 2018

Stanford’s 1919 Mass is to be treasured, says Garry Humphreys

IT IS not unusual for new works by even the most famous composers to be discovered many years — perhaps centuries — after their deaths, but these are usually lost manuscripts. In the case of Mass Via Victrix by Charles Villiers Stanford, completed in December 1919, the work was actually published, in 1920; but, apart from the Gloria, which was sung at King’s College, Cambridge, on 15 June 1920 — to honour the Chancellor of the University, Arthur Balfour, and conducted by the composer — the complete work has remained unperformed until now. One may reasonably ask, why?

It was, of course, inspired by the First World War, during which music played an important part, but by the time Stanford’s work was finished perhaps the public were tired of the War and were looking to a brighter future and to the Roaring Twenties.

Stanford was an influential composer and teacher whose pupils at the Royal College of Music included most of the significant British composers of the early to mid-20th century. Too old to fight, he hated the War and was deeply affected by its impact on his pupils, several of whom were killed or injured; some, like Ivor Gurney, were permanently shell-shocked.

Having no direct involvement in the war, Stanford failed to scale the heights of those who did and survived: one thinks of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, or Bliss’s wonderful Morning Heroes. But, on the evidence of the world première, the Saturday before last, by the BBC National Chorus and Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Adrian Partington, Via Victrix is, I think, a major work. Stanford poured all his skills and emotions into it: there are challenges a-plenty for singers and orchestral players, with demanding rhythms (a fondness for compound time and Brahmsian syncopations) and a truly independent, symphonic orchestral part, including an organ, played on this occasion by Jane Watts.

The Gloria is particularly impressive, and it is a wonder that this movement, heard in 1920, did not create a desire to hear the rest of this big, hour-long piece. This was with organ accompaniment, however, without the full orchestral colour that lifts the music on to an entirely different plain.

Several times, I was reminded of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, as in the Credo Amen and in the Agnus Dei which, like Beethoven, has an exciting orchestral interlude near the end, and the ultimate Amen, marked ppp.

Chorus and orchestra rose splendidly to the occasion and clearly enjoyed themselves. The horn obbligato in the Benedictus was superbly played by Tim Thorpe, as were the woodwind figurations in the subsequent Hosanna. There was a quartet of soloists, singing mostly as an ensemble, but all had some moments to themselves, particularly the soprano, the Australian Kiandra Howarth, in the Agnus Dei. It has to be said that they were better alone than as an ensemble (the soprano was almost always too loud), but the performance has been recorded for broadcasting and for issue on CD, and first impressions in the lively acoustic of BBC Hoddinott Hall may have come out quite differently.

A century on, we may perhaps listen to this music more objectively than our forebears, and perhaps it will now be added to the repertoire of many ambitious choral societies. It does not have to be reserved for any special occasion or commemoration (it is a Mass, not a Requiem) and, as music, will prove challenging but rewarding on its own terms, for performers and listeners alike. I look forward eagerly to several future opportunities to hear it again live.

If the Stanford was the main focus of this concert, marking the centenary of the end of the First World War, the first half was no less remarkable in its way; for we heard two orchestral works by pupils of Stanford killed in the War: the Rhapsody No. 1, “The Open Road”, written in 1908 by Ernest Farrar, teacher of Gerald Finzi —optimistic and folksy, with a clarinet solo (Robert Plane) in the middle; and Frederick Kelly’s Elegy for strings, in memory of Rupert Brooke, written in 1915.

Kelly and Denis Browne (composer of some of the finest English songs of the 20th century) were among those who buried Brooke on Skyros. Browne was killed soon afterwards, and Kelly in the following year. It was performed at Brooke’s memorial concert and at Kelly’s own, with an opening reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s “Tallis” Fantasia – a wonderful and profoundly affecting piece, sonorous and tender, with some fine solo playing from Lesley Hatfield, leader of the orchestra.

One can only wonder what would have become of these composers — and others such as George Butterworth — if they had, like Vaughan Williams and Arthur Bliss, survived the war. From the quality of the music we heard at Cardiff, they would have achieved considerable reputations.

The first half of the concert ended with a finely shaped performance of the orchestral version of Le Tombeau de Couperin, Maurice Ravel’s tribute to friends killed in the war. Given that, in 1917, when he wrote it, Ravel was a lorry driver transporting munitions under bombardment, such fastidious and civilised music seems a far cry from the composer’s existence at the time. Amy Roberts’s oboe was a joy to hear.

Controlling and inspiring all of this was Partington, hugely experienced far beyond his duties as Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral — after all, he did conduct Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” at the Three Choirs Festival in 2016. He conducts without a stick, and, while this resulted in the occasional ragged attack in fortissimo chords, quieter moments had a texture, particularly in Kelly’s Elegy, of luminescent beauty, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, to whom he bears a passing resemblance, used to achieve. This was a concert to be treasured and remembered for a long time to come.

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