These two works are rarely
heard in the concert hall as is the hallmark of works included in Hyperion’s
Romantic Piano Concerto series.
Although both composers
were of similar age and grew up together their backgrounds were as different
as their compositions.
Parry came from
a family of distinction, was educated at Eton and went up to Oxford
where he made use of the musical opportunities there. His university
studies were Law and History and not music as one might have expected.
In London, Parry acquired a friend in the pianist, Edward Dannreuther
who advised him in his compositions for the piano.
Stanford came from
a Dublin lawyer’s family, and won a Cambridge organ scholarship (Queen's
College) followed by a classical scholarship. He was elected assistant
conductor of the University Musical Society in 1871 and two years later
he became its principal conductor, a post he was to hold for 20 years.
Stanford was appointed organist at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1874
(a post he held until his resignation in 1892). A period of study took
place at Leipzig (under Reinecke and Berlin) but I find this does not
appear to have had any lasting influence on his compositions. As a teacher,
he was an influential figure who taught a whole generation of students
which included Arthur Benjamin, Frank Bridge, Butterworth, Howells and
Vaughan Williams. His music is generally Irish scented.
opens with a movement containing an unorthodox mix of tonalities. A
ponderous through-composed second movement is languid, and not particularly
memorable. (It has a mechanical ring to part of its structure that tends
to labour an idea, giving little opportunity for piano virtuosity.)
The work wakes up in the third movement with its jaunty main theme and
strong focus on the piano. One can detect elements of Beethoven in the
orchestral scoring. Saint-Saëns (in the third movement) may have
provided a model for some of the pianist-led passages.
by contrast, is lighter and more melodious, holding one’s attention
from the outset with a lively rhythmic flow. There is more colour and
the key is brighter than the Parry (G major). His thematic development
carries one’s interest along with it and there are good virtuoso elements
for the soloist to show off his skills. From the evidence here I would
suspect that Stanford was as much at home with the piano as he was with
Piers Lane does not disappoint
with his fine performance, nor Martyn Brabbins in his reading of the
scores. For my liking, perhaps the Allegro maestoso and Maestoso
movements of the Parry are taken a touch too slowly, but both pieces
provide an enjoyable listening experience.
The notes focus more on the soloists who created
the roles rather than the composers’ backgrounds. The recording is warm
(without exaggerated reverberation) and adequately delivers the nuances
Chris Howell has also listened to this release
Try to think, before putting this on, what you might
expect a piano concerto by Parry to sound like. I am willing to bet
that whatever you came up with was very different from the disarmingly
inconsequential opening you will then hear. You are also unlikely to
have imagined that a concerto in F sharp major, at the end of its opening
statement in the home key, will veer suddenly into G major and for much
of its first movement behave like a concerto in G (with a recapitulation
beginning in D). Perhaps you will also not have expected the reflective
second subject, with its melancholy descending phrases and certain sequential
writing later, as well as the dialogue with lush strings, to sound so
much like Rachmaninov (who was eight years old when it was completed).
On the other hand, you may have imagined a piece which sounds like Parry
and I cannot truly say it does.
However, this is an early work, preceding any of the
symphonies (Parry wrote it between the ages of 30 and 32 but he was
a slow developer) and the large canvas is sometimes filled with more
work-a-day passages which detract from this often impressive movement.
And I must say that the opening of the second movement with its organist’s
orchestration and undistinguished material matches only too well some
people’s expectations of Parry. Several grandiose gestures from the
piano cannot really obscure the fact that this movement is a non-starter.
And the finale, in spite of rushing around very busily (and perhaps
containing a few phrases, particularly in the orchestra, which actually
sound like Parry) reaches little beyond its own tail, is far too long
(13’ 45") and contains some really threadbare moments along the
So in the end this proves to be no more than a decent
local product, even if the opening did seem to promise more. Jeremy
Dibble’s notes are rich in information and dedicate more than double
the space to Parry’s concerto than they do to the Stanford. Furthermore
a note by John Farmer, Trustee of Lloyd’s Music Foundation gives a history
of the preparation by Dr. Dibble of the performing edition of the Parry,
telling us that requests for the use of the score have come from America
and Moscow and anticipating "that the work will now find its place
in the international concerto repertoire". So far (seven years
on) this has not come about and I cannot really think it will. Attempts
to export Parry abroad have never had much success, whether in his lifetime
or since and in many ways he is a classic case of a local master.
Stanford, on the other hand, once walked the European
stage and may do so again, even if it is only in his songs that he consistently
matches the finest of his contemporaries. The opening to this concerto,
with a charming theme on the wind heard against arpeggios on the piano,
is entrancing and the first movement contains much elegant and attractive
invention. Unfortunately it also contains some more strenuous passages
which, if Stanford were challenged to say why he wrote them, I don’t
see what he could have replied except "to get from A to B",
thereby diluting the effect. The piano writing itself is effective in
the delicate moments but, as is inclined to happen with a composer who
plays the piano decently but is not a virtuoso, at climaxes he can think
of nothing better to do than storm around in double octaves. I suspect
it is ultimately rather unsatisfying to play, alternating light and
poetic moments with others that don’t deliver all they are meant to.
The slow movement has more substance, a strong and
dignified opening leading to much craggy and passionate development.
The rewriting of the opening theme towards the end is a minor stroke
of genius, reminding us that it is the simplest ideas which affect us
most. The finale opens well but the secondary material is less distinguished,
more like a transition to something more important (which doesn’t emerge)
than a theme in itself. A poetic coda, just before the final pay-off,
does much to redress the balance.
The Stanford concerto which really is a revelation
(at least among those so far recorded) is the First Violin Concerto
(Hyperion CDA67208) while the Clarinet Concerto (Helios CDH55101) has
proved durable and rewarding. The First Piano Concerto is not quite
on this level but it contains much of value, and its eclipse by the
Second Concerto was not wholly just, for the present work perhaps has
a finer slow movement.
It also raises a rather fascinating question. A few
years back I published an article in British Music Society News (no.
75 of September 1997, p. 79 for those readers who have back numbers)
entitled "Stanford and Musical Quotation". I return now to
the subject in so far as it regards this concerto.
In 1889 Stanford had conducted a programme of his music
with the Berlin Philharmonic, including the Fourth Symphony which was
written for the occasion. Brahms, who was present, must surely have
smiled when the first movement’s second subject material contained a
reference to the first of his own Liebesliederwalzer. The First
Piano Concerto was not specifically written for Berlin (it was premiered
in London on 27th May 1895) but Stanford conducted it in
a concert of British music in Berlin on 30th December 1895
and presumably that concert was already planned when he composed the
piece, for the second subject of the first movement of this work
also alludes to the Liebesliederwalzer. It is also fleetingly
quoted towards the end of the finale. Furthermore, the finale of the
Fourth Symphony had a theme which was basically a rising scale. Now,
without the other quotation, I would not make much of the fact that
the second subject of the finale of the First Piano Concerto is also
based on a rising scale, since music is built on scales and it is phrased
and barred so differently as to have a completely different effect.
However, in the context, and bearing in mind that it is at one point
juxtaposed with the Liebesliederwalzer theme, I have little doubt
that this is a further intentional cross-reference.
Just what we are to make of this is not clear. Obviously,
the single works can be perfectly well enjoyed without knowledge of
the quotations. At one level, Stanford was apparently amusing himself
by cross-referencing his music in a way that only he himself and a few
close friends would notice. On the other hand, these references do sometimes
lend point to the music when one has ferreted them out. Somehow this
concerto took on a slightly different meaning for me when I had recognised
the quotations. And this raises the question that Stanford’s work –
of which we after all still know only the tip of the iceberg – maybe
be cross-referenced to an extent we cannot imagine.
The performances seem excellent and the recording good,
if more mellow than brilliant and at a slightly low level.
See the Hyperion
Romantic Piano Concerto Series