“Stanford's Songs of the Sea have kept the British baritone afloat for the best part of a century.
Drake's hammock and the barnacles of The Old Superb used to be familiar in parlours and drawing- rooms throughout the land. The cries of Captain Keats and his crew ('“Ship ahoy!” a hundred times a day'), the alliterative mysteries of 'Fetter and Faith … Faggot and Father' and the assurance that Drake even now was 'ware and waking' were assimilated almost as the words of folksongs, while the music seemed part of our flesh and blood. They are splendid songs, and the set of five constitutes a small masterpiece.
Sceptical readers should try them again in this new recording. Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson give a most sensitive performance, not emasculated but treating them thoughtfully.
The two quieter songs, 'Outward Bound' and 'Homeward Bound', become more central, better integrated, than usual, and the very fact that this is the solo version, without the male-voice chorus added later, makes it easier to hear them (the whole set) as a personal utterance. With 'Drake's Drum', for instance, Varcoe is very intent upon seeing sense, where others have often sought for little beyond a generalised patriotic earnestness. These, perhaps, are TheSongs of the Sea as Captain Edward Fairfax Vere might have sung them.
In reviewing the first volume, Michael Oliver wrote of the difficulty of reconciling the Irishman and the Brahmsian in Stanford: the melodic vein of the one seemed at odds with the harmonic language of the other. The occasions here when a dichotomy of style does cause trouble are found in the Songs of Faith. Whitman's auto-intoxication incites Stanford to indulge in grandiose gestures that aren't natural to him at all. He's much more at home with Shakespeare and Dekker, or, for that matter, with Quiller-Couch and Winifred M Letts, whose A Fire of Turf provides him with poems for some masterly settings. All are beautifully performed by these excellent artists.”