A Spirited Irish Orchestra Tackles Inspiring British Classical Rarities

Charles Villiers Stanford is revered as a composer in the UK, but is lesser known beyond his home turf. His stately organ works are frequently performed on this side of the pond. His orchestral music was an foundational influence on Ralph Vaughan Williams and falls solidly in the Romantic camp, full of drama, dynamism and colorful orchestration. Howard Shelley conducts the Ulster Orchestra in a new album comprising several Stanford works including A Song of Agincourt, which hasn’t hit the web yet.

They open with a robust, emphatic version of his Overture in the Style of a Tragedy, a relatively recent rediscovery which this orchestra premiered in 2010. From its initial Beethovenesque pulses, through numerous plaintive oboe solos, it’s evocative of the more heroic-themed work of Cesar Franck.

As World War I was drawing to a close, Stanford orchestrated his Organ Sonata No. 2 and retitled it Verdun: Solemn March and Heroic Epilogue. Its majestic counterpoint translates well to the steady, brassy processional and rather wistful interpretation which the orchestra follow with in the former, and the victorious swells and dips (and wry Marseillaise quotes) of the latter.

The women’s choir Codetta under the direction of Donal Doherty join the orchestra for a plainchant-inspired yet soaring take of Stanford’s Fairy Day triptych. The nocturnal segments of the concluding movement are particularly celestial.

The Song of Agincourt – commemorating Henry V’s invading army taking advantage of the defending French, who were struggling under one of the most corrupt regimes in that nation’s history – is a strong centerpiece. Shelley and the ensemble work Stanford’s variations on a 15th century troubadour waltz with lithe energy and surprisingly subtle foreshadowing throughout its many calm, woodsy moments, up to a brief, insistent coda. Bellicose backstory aside, this is a strikingly anthemic, optimistic piece of music that deserves to be better known.