Ahoy, mates! “Shall we fight, or shall we fly?…for to fight is but to die!” At least these are sentiments that I was feeling after first hearing this remarkable disc by Hickox and company, as I was reaching for my Horatio Hornblower novels. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, a Victorian to the hilt, was a great lover of epic ballads and tales that elevated the sometimes common-place actions of battles and exploits to the realm of the heroic and sublime. Almost any of the poems of Tennyson (one of his favorites) will demonstrate this sort of noble exaltation – a judgment that history sometimes favors, and sometimes doesn’t. In our jaded age, such things are frowned upon, especially when hearing of glory in battle and charging into certain death, hopelessly outnumbered by a swinish enemy (mostly Spanish, in this case).
But perhaps we miss something today that Stanford was picking up on, the idea of nobility in thought and action, regardless of circumstances. Certainly this is the effect of his oratorio The Revenge: A Ballad of the Fleet. Taken from Tennyson’s Ballads and Other Poems, it is the story of the hopelessly lost ship Revenge (1591) that ventures in the conflict with a fierceness that has the enemy in awe, only to be turned over to the Spanish at the end, with Sir Richard Grenville, cousin of Raleigh, fatally falling to the floor of the deck at the conclusion. This piece is almost operatic in structure, complete with stormy sound effects and a modest leitmotif system that is quite effective. The piece was considerably popular in its time, and I know of only one other recording: on Decca with Roger Norrington.
Despite the enthusiastic nuances of the tales of the Revenge, it is the other two works on this disc that I find more attractive. Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet were intended as companions, and they are both much later works. Both use poems of Sir Henry John Newbolt, and are deliciously scored with affecting attention to text-setting, something not always successful in these larger scale works. These songs serve as a prequel to the Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony in form, effect, and expertise, and even though the latter is dealing with a more advanced harmonic language than Stanford ever considered (few Victorians would ever desire to “shock” anyone), one cannot sell short his accomplishment in lifting our spirits with superb melody and an unrestrained emotionalism, devoid of any overwrought British-isms.
Gerald Finley sings as well here as I have every heard him, and Richard Hickox has the BBC Orchestra of Wales playing like champs. For those put off by the typical Chandos “distant” sound, I can report that their excellent 5.1 SACD makes all of the difference in the world, adding a dimension that fills in the sound stage with just the right amount of ambient sound from the rear speakers. This is a fine concept disc with some terrific music.
— Steven Ritter