CD of the Week; STANFORD Stabat Mater; Bible Songs; Te Deum Leeds Philharmonic Chorus BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Richard Hickox Chandos CHAN 9548

It's easy to place this music. Never mind that the composer was an Irish Protestant, it's English to the last well-groomed semi-quaver, it's late 19th- / early 20th-century, it's grand in keeping with an age of municipal pride, an age of architectural and musical edifices, of bigger is better and religious is best of all.

Charles Villiers Stanford's setting of the Stabat Mater is from the school of Parry and Elgar and would not shame either. It's a find. The substantial orchestral prelude concedes to Gerontius and explains the subtitle "Symphonic Cantata". A truculent allegro e feroce suggests bloodlust and brutality; a burgeoning second subject places the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the cross. We are in the exalted (and highly theatrical) world of Anglican Oratorio.

Stanford's memorable motifs ring with the appropriate conviction. The stanza beginning "O quam tristis" brings forth the finest of them, and its return in the coda of this first movement (clarinet and then oboe floated over muted strings and harp) is inspirational. Almost as inspirational as the Virgin's great hymn to Our Lord which constitutes the finale.

There's nothing remotely Protestant about Stanford's beneficent view of Heaven. The exalted "Mary" theme returns, paving a path to infinity with the words "Paradisi gloria". Each time the music seems about to resolve, to find rest in a final cadence, the spirit moves it onward. In effect, it doesn't stop with the double barline.

The Biblical Songs, for baritone and organ (Stephen Varcoe and Ian Watson), are positively austere by comparison: Bible readings with the added imperative of song. "A Song of Peace" alludes to "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", aspiring to be operatic with the final word of the final line: "And his rest shall be glorious". A timely welter of organ sound is the promise fulfilled. As is Stanford's brief setting of the Te Deum.

Sometimes Chandos recordings of uncharted repertoire (for which much thanks) sound like a couple of extra rehearsals might not have gone amiss. Not so in this instance. Richard Hickox and his forces - not least the excellent Leeds Philharmonic Choir - sound like they've been purveying the Stabat Mater on a regular basis. Here's hoping. Demo-quality sound, as ever.

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