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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Symphony no. 3 in F minor – “Irish”, op. 28 (1887) [42:56]
Symphony no. 6 in E flat op. 94 – “In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts” (1905) [37:23]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 25-26 July 2006 (no. 3), 18-19 June 2007 (no. 6), The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK
NAXOS 8.570355 [80:18]
Experience Classicsonline

For over a decade before Elgar’s First, Stanford’s “Irish Symphony” was the most-played British Symphony, at home and abroad. Following its première in London under Hans Richter on 27 June 1887, during 1888 it reached Hamburg (26 January under Hans von Bülow), Berlin (6 February, Bülow again), New York (April, Walter Damrosch) and Amsterdam (the inaugural concert of the Concertgebouw Orchestra on 3 November under their first conductor Willem Kes). Kes’s successor Willem Mengelberg conducted the Symphony several times – and other works by Stanford, too – while notable performances were given by Gustav Mahler in New York in 1910. After the First World War it was gradually supplanted by more recent compositions, but listeners with early memories going back to pre-war and wartime concerts and broadcasts will tell you that it still cropped up sometimes until the early 1940s. After the Second World War a reaction set in against all things Victorian or Edwardian. Only more recently has a new generation been ready to re-examine Stanford.

The first movement ranges quite widely in its moods. If you look for a logical link – according to the best German traditions – between the ballad-like first group and the flowing, songlike second, you won’t find one. For example, though the ominous trombone motive over a timpani roll near the beginning recalls a similar moment in Brahms’s Second Symphony, its purpose is different. In Brahms the trombones underpin further statements of the three-note motive that is the germ of the entire movement – maybe the entire work. In Stanford, the motive is not intended to generate anything beyond the next paragraph, leading to the first big climax. The loosely organic framework is emphasized by the way the development section does not attempt to combine the themes or relate them to each other. In two parts, it develops the first group and then passes on to the next. However, while it is possible to argue that this amounts to a homespun non-use of true symphonic form, it is also possible to find, taking into account the considerably varied restatement of the themes after the development, that it amounts to a pleasingly spontaneous, rhapsodic structure well-suited to the nature of the subject-matter in the way tight Brahmsian logic would not have been.

The second movement has generally been judged as delightful. It is a “hop-jig” – in 9/8 rather than 6/8, so adding a hop to the normal jig movement when danced. The trio is warmly lyrical. There has also been general agreement, too, that the slow movement, from its atmospheric opening and close to its powerful climax, is one of Stanford’s most deeply felt. However, it has a “problem” which Richard Whitehouse’s notes really should have addressed. Lewis Foreman’s notes to the Chandos recording find space to discuss the matter, and of course both Jeremy Dibble and Paul Rodmell  deal with it in some detail in their books on the composer [respectively Oxford 2002 and Ashgate 2002]. But not all purchasers of Naxos discs can afford expensive musical biographies as well.

Underpinning the second subject – a melody reminiscent of “The Last Rose of Summer” first heard on the oboe – is an ostinato motive played on the violas. Not very noticeable at first it pervades the texture more as all four horns take it up in unison until it ends by sweeping the melody itself aside. Stanford then returns to develop the first theme but again, after a powerful build-up including an “Eroica”-like fugato, the ostinato motive is blazed out on wind and brass. Even a listener with minimal experience of the classical repertoire will have noticed the similarity to the horn-motive that opens the second movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. In the Brahms work, though, the motive is modal (beginning on the third note of the C major scale, as it were), while Stanford’s motive is “normal” (beginning on the first note of the scale). So the actual effect is different. Is it a quotation or isn’t it? the listener may ask. Then, following a luxurious restatement of the first theme, there is a pause, after which the solo horn enunciates the ostinato motive in “modal” form, exactly as in the Brahms Symphony. After which the oboe brings in the “Last Summer” theme and the “episode” is over. Same notes (a semitone higher, but that doesn’t affect the issue), same orchestration, approximately the same tempo …. What’s happened?

Stanford’s own explanation was simple, maybe simplistic. In a note to the score, he states that “in the third movement … a portion of an old Irish lament known as ‘The Lament of the Sons of Usnach’ has been utilised as a figure of accompaniment pp. 115 et seq’ [the incipit is then quoted]”. In “Pages from an Unwritten Diary” (Edward Arnold 1914) he enlarges on the matter.

“The Irish Symphony and Brahms’ E minor Symphony (no. 4) were written simultaneously. The slow movement of Brahms’ work begins with a phrase which is note for note identical with a passage in the slow movement of mine. But the passage [quotation given] is from an old Irish lament in Petrie’s MSS” (p.262).

He also notes with gratitude that Bülow drew the attention of a prominent Berlin critic to this coincidence.

Unfortunately, the facts contradict this comfortable chronology. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony had its first performance at Meiningen on 25 October 1885. Since Stanford told Joachim he was burning to hear it [Dibble p.182] we may presume he attended the London première under Richter on 10 May 1886. Almost immediately he got to work on his own new Symphony, completing the first movement on 5 June. Work was interrupted while he dashed off some choral commissions and the second movement was finished on 18 February 1887. The third followed on 4 April and the whole Symphony was ready on 30 April. Stanford therefore had ample time to hear and absorb the Brahms before penning the “problem” passage. Unless we allow the possibility that the Symphony was already gestating in his mind before he actually put it to paper. Stanford avoided any sort of discussion of his compositional methods. Ostensibly, when it was time to write a work, he just sat down and wrote it. It is obviously possible that ideas were continually occurring to him before he actually wrote them down. We just don’t know. Some support for this comforting theory comes from the fact that he completed “The Revenge” in January 1886 and the Piano Quintet in March 1886 and was not actually composing anything as far as we know in the month or so between that and hearing Brahms’s Fourth. Another consideration is that Stanford’s “Irish” has no resemblance to the Brahms in its general tone, but arguably has some kinship with Dvořák’s Seventh, which had been introduced to London in 1885. Stanford’s first movement contains a possible recollection of Dvořák’s slow movement, though nothing like as obvious as the Brahms “quotation”. So maybe the sheer fact that Brahms had written a new and apparently magnificent Symphony was enough to set Stanford off without waiting to hear it.

All the same, I’d believe in this more happily if it weren’t for that horn passage… But, you may say, if the ostinato motive was taken from an Irish melody, surely Stanford had at least as much right to it as Brahms? Rather curiously, too, the melody as he quotes it in “Pages” appears in the “modal” form – as in Brahms and as in the “horn quotation” in his own work, and only there, while in the note in the score it is quoted in its “normal” form. So just what was the original form of the melody?

The trouble is, nobody has succeeded in finding it. Lewis Foreman (in his notes to the Chandos recording) admits it’s a mystery and leaves it at that. Stanford later edited the entire Petrie Collection [now available as a Dover reprint], well over a thousand melodies. The eye becomes a little bleary skimming through so many tunes in the search of a small motive that may be in the middle of one rather than at the beginning. My impression is that it is not there. Furthermore, the actual melodic shape does not even seem a typically Irish one. Paul Rodmell suggests the “Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill” as the source. An arrangement of this was included in “Fifty Songs of Old Ireland” which Stanford had dedicated to Brahms in 1882, so it would indeed be pleasing to find Brahms had lifted it from there. Unfortunately the resemblance is tenuous and I am not really convinced. As quoted by Rodmell, presumably directly from Petrie, the rhythm is at least the same if not the notes. But in “Songs of Old Ireland”, the only form in which Brahms could have known it, the dotted notes have been evened out to quavers so even that resemblance disappears.

A little closer, as Dibble points out, is “Oh, Where’s the Slave”. This is one of Moore’s Melodies. In 1895 Stanford published “Moore’s Irish Melodies Restored”. Prior to this these tunes had been widely popular – in Europe as well as Great Britain – in arrangements by John Stevenson. This tune at least has the repetition and the modal form of the Brahms, even if the third and fourth notes go down instead of up. There’s a problem here, too. As “restored” by Stanford in 1895, the part of the melody in question is in 3/4 time, like the “ostinato motive” of the “Irish”. But in the Stevenson it is in 4/4. If Brahms ever saw the tune – but would he have had time for Stevenson’s Haydn-and-water arrangements? – he saw it in that form. It is furthermore unlikely that Stanford himself knew in 1887 that the Stevenson version – household music in Dublin when he was a boy – was wrong. But in any case, if “Owen Roe O’Neill” or “Oh, Where’s the Slave” are the solution to the mystery, the fact remains that Stanford must have “fixed” whichever it was, both as it appears in the “Irish” and as he “quoted” it in “Pages”, to bring it in line with the Brahms.

There’s another aspect to be considered. Stanford made extensive use of musical quotation rather as Schumann concealed messages in his scores by means of ciphers. For example, in the first movement of his Fourth Symphony, illustrative of “Youth”, he quotes a phrase from one of Brahms’s “Liebeslieder Walzer”, an allusion to the fact that he met his wife-to-be in Germany. Furthermore, it was not unusual for him to weave a quotation into a work, only hinting at it at first, leaving you guessing – “is it or isn’t it?” – until the quotation is fully revealed. The references to the “Emperor’s Hymn” in “Ave atque Vale”, for example, written for the Haydn centenary (1909), may seem only coincidences until the theme emerges in all its glory at the end. Given that Stanford’s ambition in 1887 knew no bounds, what is more possible than that he boldly alluded to Brahms’s latest Symphony in his own as a way of saying “Look, the Irish can compose symphonies too”?

Why didn’t he admit this, if so? In truth, he never did provide a clue to his allusions, they’re just there for you to find and make what you will of them. And then, he can hardly have dared hope, while composing the work, that it would soon be played in Brahms’s own territory. What seemed a brave lark at the time perhaps began to strike him as almighty impudence. So, much as I love Stanford, I think he did a dirty piece of backtracking, inventing an “Irish lament” that never existed and claiming to his dying day that he’d used it in his “Irish Symphony”.  Fortunately, this needn’t prevent our finding it a very beautiful movement.

Regarding the finale, I must object to the claim in Richard Whitehouse’s very poorly researched notes that “The ‘Irish’ subtitle indicates its [i.e. the entire Symphony’s] frequent deployment of folk-tunes as melodic material”. In the note to the score referred to above Stanford identifies just two Irish folk-songs as having been used – apart from the “problem” one – and nobody has ever suggested he was economical with the truth in this case. They are both in the finale, they both come from “Moore’s Irish Melodies” and they are, respectively, “Remember the glories of Brian the Brave” and “Let Erin remember the days of old”. I don’t call that “frequent deployment”.

The first of these strides in purposefully at the beginning. Many commentators have noted how the tone and even the orchestration seem to look ahead to Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’s folk-inspired music. The second theme is warm and broad and is Stanford’s own – or is it? More of this in a moment. A development seems to begin. Whitehouse observes that the second theme is “slowed down so that it resembles more a chorale”. And yet it is ostensibly a new theme altogether! Stanford is here using a form of which he is rather fond. After setting out in apparent sonata form, the development is replaced by a new theme just glimpsed at, which then returns triumphantly in the coda. The new theme, in fact, is “Let Erin remember”, with soft trumpets heralding a hoped-for dawn. The vision then fades, “Brian the Brave” strides in belligerently and the recapitulation pursues its way until, true to form, “Let Erin remember” rounds off as a patriotic chorale a Symphony that is both attractive and satisfying.

However, just as I was getting hot under the collar at Whitehouse for not noticing that the second subject and “Let Erin remember” are two different themes it occurred to me that he may have noticed something that has escaped other observers, though I am not sure if he has grasped the significance of what he has noticed. Namely that, although Stanford clearly indicated the page in the score on which “Let Erin remember” first appears, thus implicitly claiming the second subject as his own, this second subject has certain intervallic resemblances to “Let Erin remember”. Enough to suggest it may have been loosely derived from it. Coincidence or thematic transformation in the manner of Liszt?

Stanford showed considerable interest in thematic transformation during this period as a way of binding a work together. Notable in this respect is “Carmen Saeculare op.26”, a commission for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee that he interrupted the composition of the “Irish” to complete. He wasn’t able to do much with Tennyson’s sycophantic verse but he seized the opportunity for an ingenious exercise in thematic transformation – all the themes are variants of each other. So, thematic transformation being the name of the day, I think we may take it that the resemblances between the “original” second subject and “Let Erin remember” are deliberate and aimed at binding the finale together.

In view of its erstwhile popularity it is not surprising that, when conditions made the recording of a Stanford symphony feasible, the “Irish” was the one chosen. Played by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta and conducted by Norman Del Mar, the LP was issued in 1982 (HMV ASD 4221). Unfortunately, while tiny little Lyrita might have booked one of the big London orchestras for the job, the EMI colossus preferred to save its hap’orth of tar and record a big romantic symphony with a chamber orchestra. It is true that orchestras in Stanford’s day may not have been much larger, but if the intention was to do a Historically Informed version then other considerations needed to be made. As it is, Del Mar produced the most expansive reading of the three now available – nearly three minutes longer than Lloyd-Jones, almost four-and-a-half minutes longer than Handley. He lingers affectionately round the corners during the first movement, produces a sprightly and vivacious hop-jig, gives the slow movement Brucknerian breadth and manages to accommodate both the “moderato” and the “ma con fuoco” markings of the finale. This remains the best conceived reading so far, but it would have needed Berlin or Amsterdam strings to do it full justice.

Handley’s recording was set down in August 1986 and ushered in the first complete Stanford Symphony cycle. When I first heard it I was impressed by the overall drive of his first movement. Placing it alongside Del Mar it is noticeable how Handley’s determination to get on with it hampers the more lyrical moments. The vein of nostalgia that emerges from Del Mar seems to me more genuinely Irish. Applying Beethovenian discipline emphasises the Brahmsian aspects.

Handley is actually slower than Del Mar in the scherzo. It remains fairly lively on its own terms but the plodding regularity of the underlying beat make it ultimately more an interpretation for the bandstand than for the concert hall.

The slow movement engages Handley more. His opening and closing tempi are similar to Del Mar’s but in the climaxes, where Del Mar holds steady, Handley moves the music on more passionately. It is a valid alternative except that, when the ostinato theme is hammered out at the climax, the stolid inflexibility that undermines so many of Handley’s performances takes its toll.

I have seen great enthusiasm expressed for Handley’s finale. I think this must be the opinion of a critic who doesn’t really care for Stanford and who finds the Irish good company only when they’re drunk. Handley jollies the music up. It may sound lively and toe-tapping at the beginning, but then he pushes through looking neither to right nor to left, regardless of whether the tempo or the manner suit the music in hand. This until the very end where the long rests between the final chords evidently strike him as a waste of time, so he suddenly speeds up the tempo most unmusically.

Lloyd Jones is closer to Del Mar even if his overall timing is faster. His tempo is similar to Del Mar’s in the first movement though he lingers less over the transitions. He gets reasonably close to the expansive, nostalgic character of Del Mar. He also follows Del Mar in presenting a thoroughly vivacious scherzo and is perhaps more affectionate still with the trio. He begins and ends the slow movement very broadly. He doesn’t move forward like Handley every time the music gets loud but he does speed up for the central climax, quite effectively. His finale perhaps finds a greater range of mood than any. The first appearance of “Let Erin remember” on hushed trumpets has considerable poetry – Handley doesn’t even try to get them playing really quietly. On the other hand, Del Mar has more grandeur at the end.

No version plays the first movement repeat, by the way – clearly the new disc didn’t have room. I’m in two minds about this. Not just because of the length – the Del Mar lasts about 14 minutes as it is – but because a strict repetition would destroy that sense of rhapsodizing that I alluded to above. On the other hand, the beginning of the development section and also the coda dwell upon a phrase – the one reminiscent of Dvořák 7/(ii) – that is heard for the first time in the lead-back to the exposition repeat. In other words, if you don’t play the repeat, Stanford is left developing a theme that apparently isn’t part of the movement’s material.

The conclusion would seem to be that Del Mar remains the finest “Irish”, in spite of the orchestral limitations, but Lloyd Jones will do very nicely while Handley won’t at all.

Stanford’s success in Berlin led to an immediate return with the Fourth Symphony, but it wasn’t a case of up and up. The Fifth Symphony did make it to Berlin, after an interval of some years, but he began to slip from view.

The Sixth Symphony was written in 1905. Stanford himself conducted the première with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Queen’s Hall on 18 January 1906. Whitehouse states that “it received only one more hearing before succumbing to an eighty-year oblivion”. I’m not sure where he got his figures from since Greene, Dibble and Rodmell between them mention a further performance under Stanford (Bournemouth, January 1907), one under Landon Ronald (Queen’s Hall, 2 December 1909) and one under Claud Powell (Guildford, February 1923, part of a concert in Stanford’s honour). That makes three further hearings and reduces the period of oblivion to 64 years. Though it hardly transforms a case of grievous neglect into one of excessive exposure.

The Symphony was written “In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts”. Though it has no specific programme Stanford named four works by Watts which had particularly influenced it: “Love and Life”, “Love and Death”, “Good luck to your fishing” and the equestrian statue “Physical Energy”. Whitehouse does not name these – as Foreman did in his notes for the Chandos recording – and I think most listeners would have found them useful.

It has been remarked that the opening of Stanford’s Second Piano Concerto was his reaction to Rachmaninov’s Second, which he had conducted with the composer as soloist not long before. Similarly the leaping opening to this Symphony may have been prompted by Elgar’s “In the South”, which Stanford conducted at the Leeds Festival in 1904. It is an upfront, exuberant movement which nevertheless relaxes at times into a friendly lyricism rather redolent of such late Strauss works as “Capriccio” or, more to the point – since Stanford knew this earlier work and parodied it in his “Nonsense Rhymes” – “Ein Heldenleben”.

Handley’s account certainly has a coursing energy. As his wont, having started that way he continues that way, hustling through the lovely lyrical phrases and relaxing only when absolutely compelled to. Aided by a more spacious recording, Lloyd-Jones gives Stanford breathing-room. The result is not less energetic, since the syncopations are clearer and quite a lot of additional detail emerges. But he is also able to relax winningly without losing his way. The second subject on the cellos barely registers under Handley; here it sounds absolutely lovely.

The second movement opens with a hauntingly beautiful – and very Irish – theme on the cor anglais. Much that follows is by turns radiantly atmospheric and passionate, but the painting that inspired it was “Love and Death” and powerful shadows cross the music at times. Truly, I think this movement can stand alongside other more famous cor anglais-led slow movements by Franck and Dvořák.

Handley is at his best here, taking considerable care over the atmosphere and general build-up. Lloyd-Jones is a tad slower and shapes the music more, not indulgently but making the phrases breathe as though they were sung. He also makes the “death” theme more genuinely terrifying. Handley will seem good enough if you haven’t heard Lloyd-Jones, but I can’t think of a clearer illustration of the difference between time-beating and real conducting.

The rest of the Symphony seems to me on a lower plane. The brief and lively Scherzo would be fair enough if it were a moment of relaxation between a glorious slow movement and a stirring finale. An accelerando leads directly to a finale whose march-like theme doesn’t quite deliver the goods. Under Handley it struts and ultimately plods. Lloyd-Jones’s greater impetus and braying brass led me to think I might see the point of the movement at last.

It’s fairly clear what Stanford was trying to do. The contrasting material – rather short-breathed – gradually leads to hints of the slow movement theme. After a ritual restatement of the marching music things wind down until the slow movement theme dominates in a peaceful coda, sounding almost but not quite as beautiful as it did originally. So we have another case of a theme which is seen distantly at first and then allowed to emerge in all – or nearly all – its glory at the end. We have noted that Stanford used this formula to inspiring effect in the “Irish” and he made effective use of it elsewhere. In this particular case all the striving achieves nothing that was not achieved more beautifully twenty-five minutes earlier. Maybe another conductor will convince me that this makes a successful ending, though I get the idea that Lloyd-Jones has done pretty well everything for it that can be done.

A symphony with such a splendid first movement and such an absolutely glorious slow movement obviously cannot be ignored. The last two movements are disappointing above all in proportion to the expectations aroused. In themselves they are lively and never dull. They just don’t resolve the issues raised by the first two.

David Lloyd-Jones seems to emerge with increased stature from this record. In most of the earlier releases in this series he was superior to Handley, but not always by any very great margin. What I hear on this disc suggests a conductor on a higher level altogether. It’s a pity the Naxos cycle couldn’t have been better annotated.

Christopher Howell 

see also Review by John Quinn


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