Stanford: Songs, Vol. 1

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Songs, Vol. 1
PERFORMER: Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Clifford Benson (piano)
Stephen Varcoe’s recital demonstrates one thing clearly: that Stanford’s songs have real stature. Chronologically, the selection he offers ranges from the Eight Songs from George Eliot’s prose-poem The Spanish Gypsy – Stanford’s Op. 1 – and his famous, haunting setting of Keats’s ‘La belle dame sans merci’ (1877) through to the Six Songs from The Glens of Antrim, Op. 174 (1920). The earlier works show the marks of Germanic influences, from Schubert and Schumann onward, and nowhere more so than in the eight Heine settings included here. In these works, Varcoe’s tone sometimes weakens when he sings quietly in the upper range, though when the music becomes impassioned he allows himself some wonderful nut-brown colours. There’s also a strong Irish element on this disc. Irishness seems to liberate Stanford’s idiom even when he’s composing original music to Irish words, as we hear in the Op. 174 pieces and in the three beautifully turned examples from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster, Op. 140 (settings of poems by Winifred Letts) and particularly in ‘A Soft Day’. The pianist Clifford Benson is recorded a little distantly, but just listen to his chording at the end of the epic Thomas Stanley setting ‘The Tomb’ to get an idea of the rich resonance of his contribution. Stephen Pettitt