Songs of the Sea, Op. 91; Songs of the Fleet, Op. 117; The Revenge

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COMPOSERS: Op. 117; The Revenge,Op. 91; Songs of the Fleet,Songs of the Sea
LABELS: Chandos
ALBUM TITLE: Stanford
WORKS: Gerald Finley (baritone); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
CATALOGUE NO: CHSA 5043 (hybrid CD/SACD)
An Anglophile Ulsterman, though no sailor himself, Stanford derived some of his most enduring inspiration from the contemplation of Britain’s naval glories, and his friendships with the mature Tennyson and the young Henry Newbolt. The Revenge (1886), setting Tennyson’s patriotic ballad about the lone English ship that fought a Spanish fleet, was his biggest choral hit, with dozens of performances and 60,000 copies of the vocal score sold in its first ten years. Even sung as lustily as on this new Chandos release, though, it seems a little too genteel for its subject-matter, the demands of flowing melody neutralising some of the dramatic directness required. But it’s immensely assured, as are the two Newbolt cycles. Songs of the Sea – which includes the long-popular ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘The Old Superb’ – and the later, texturally richer and more thoughtful Songs of the Fleet are superb baritone vehicles for Gerald Finley, and incidentally show Stanford to be hardly less adept than Parry at the natural, vigorous setting of English verse.

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There’s no current rival in The Revenge; in the Newbolt cycles Finley comes up against a near-classic account by Benjamin Luxon with the Bournemouth SO under Norman Del Mar (EMI). This is a grand, idiomatic account – but Luxon omits one of the Songs of the Sea and the recording, which blunts the chorus’s enunciation, is quite outclassed by this new Chandos SACD, which has impressive presence. All that before considering Finley’s great sensitivity and beauty of tone, especially in the predominantly slow numbers of Songs of the Fleet. Calum MacDonald.