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Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Cello Concerto in D minor (1879-1880) [27:36]
Piano Concerto No.3 in Eb, Op.171 (orch. Geoffrey Bush) (1919) [37:43]
Alexander Baillie (cello); Malcolm Binns (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicolas Braithwaite
rec. details not given
LYRITA SRCD 321 [65:23]





This is the one I have been waiting for. From the moment that the rumour mill hinted that a Lyrita recording of these two ‘lost’ works was on the cards, I have been impatient to get to grips with them.

Ever since finding a copy of ‘The Music Review’ for February 1964 I have been aware that Stanford wrote a Third Piano Concerto. What Frederick Hudson in his ‘A Catalogue of Works of Charles Villiers Stanford’ does not hint at is the existence of a Cello Concerto. He does not explore the ‘early’ works in any detail. However a brief examination of Grove reveals a number of concerted works that have been lost, suppressed or ignored. There is an early Rondo for Cello and Orchestra, a ‘Zero’ Piano Concerto written in 1874 and a Violin Concerto from the following year. However Grove does mention the present Cello Concerto. It is dated 1880 and suggests that the slow movement was the only part to have been given a performance some four years later. It is unpublished.

I have long been a fan of Stanford’s Second Piano Concerto, having first heard it in the Lyrita recording produced on vinyl back in 1985. It has become one of my ‘Desert Island Discs’. I have introduced the work to a number of people who have invariably been impressed. My usual ‘spiel’ before playing the work is to tell them that if this work had been by Rachmaninov it would have been featured at a thousand concerts worldwide every year. The fact that it is by an Irishman who has a reputation for being as ‘dry as dust’ has ensured that it has been roundly ignored by virtually all the movers and shakers in the musical world.

In 1993 Stanford enthusiasts were able to hear the First Piano Concerto in G major which had been written in 1894. Although not as satisfying and downright romantic as its successor it was a great find. It is certainly a lighter-weight work, yet it is full of good tunes and attractive working out of the material. It never tires or bores the listener.

So it was with considerable apprehension that I loaded the Third Concerto in Eb into the CD player. Would it fulfil my expectations?

The short answer is that it did! There will be ample time in the coming months for reviewers to produce a detailed analysis of this Concerto: to decide its relative merits and demerits. However at this stage I want to make three statements about this work. Firstly we are lucky to be able to approach this work in the early years of the 21st century. If this recording had been released in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s it would have been ridiculed. It is a romantic work: Stanford certainly wears his heart on his sleeve. It is possible to note a dozen influences and references all of which would have led critics of a previous generation to dismiss the work as derivative. Scratch the surface and we find Brahms, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein and a host of others. Bearing in mind that this work was composed in 1919 there are no nods to serialism, jazz or neo-classicism. This is retro music and rightly so. It only since Chandos began to release the Stanford Symphonies and other orchestral works that we have been able to appreciate the composer for what he is. He is not dry as dust: he is not hidebound by musical pedantry – but a great romantic with a Capital R who was never afraid to write a good tune or to tug at the heart strings. Stanford’s music is warm-hearted as well as being well written and formally sound.

Secondly, the present Third Piano Concerto is a great work. To me it is not quite as successful as the Second, but it is only fair to point out that I have known the latter work for twenty years: the former I have listened to twice. The Third Concerto is full of good tunes. The balance of ‘first’ and ‘second’ subjects in the opening movement is absolutely perfect. There is a surprising depth in the enigmatic middle movement and a splendid closing ‘allegro’. There are moments in this work that bring tears to the eyes: much of the piano’s musings can only be described as ‘heart-easing.’ This is a lovers’ concerto as well as a flamboyant display of technical virtuosity.

Thirdly, we have to thank the late and great Geoffrey Bush for realising this work for the present generation. The original existed only in a two-piano version. Bush brought his skill as a composer and as an enthusiast for the music of Stanford to bear on this concerto. It is a huge success and has been 100% worthwhile.

The Cello Concerto in D minor is quite a different work to the Piano Concerto of 1919. The former work was written when the composer was 28 years old and nods to Dvořák. Lewis Foreman in his excellent programme notes writes that “Stanford (at that time) was to all intents and purposes a pan-German composer with regional accent, though that accent was not yet Irish.”

Stanford has an excellent understanding of the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra. At no time in this work does it threaten to overpower the cellist. In fact it acts much more as an accompanist than as a competitor. The most obvious thing about this composition is the seeming cornucopia of tunes. The cello part just keeps unfolding and expanding before our ears. The first movement is in sonata form, but there is no sense of the inevitable or the obvious. Each statement of each theme is perfectly balanced and timed. I believe that this first movement is the true heart of the work. The second movement is perhaps a ‘ballad:’ it is written as ‘molto adagio.’ This is beautiful music. I cannot care a jot that critics will play ‘hunt the allusion’. It is a truly wonderful exploration of slow and reflective material. Just accept that there is little in the way of ‘Celtic’ twilight here – it is more Lough Neagh or the Wicklow Hills or some ancient Irish legend seen through the eyes of a German!

Mr Foreman, rightly I think, sees the last movement as a precursor of Stanford’s later closing movements where he used Irish dance rhythms. Of course it is also easy to see this music as an Anglo-Irish response to the great contemporary Slavonic Dances by Dvořák.

On two hearings I am impressed. The Cello Concerto in D minor may not be a masterpiece: it may not rival Elgar's later work but it is a fine essay using a musical language that was close to hand. I hope that as this work becomes better known it will join that very small repertoire of fine British Cello Concertos that have a permanent place in the heart of all enthusiasts of British music.

I need hardly add that the playing on this disc is stunning. The sound quality is beholden to no-one and the programme notes are extremely helpful.

This CD is a must for all enthusiasts of Stanford’s music. I guarantee that it will not disappoint: in fact it will inspire you and make you want to explore the music of this Great Man in much more detail. And that can be no bad thing!

John France

 

 

 

 


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