> Charles Villiers Stanford [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Quartet no. 1 in F, op. 15 (1879)*
Piano Trio no. 1 in E flat, op. 35
Pirasti Trio, with Philip Dukes*
Recorded St. Silasí Church, Kentish Town, London, 28th-30th July 1998
ASV CD DCA 1056 [58í33"]

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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Trio no. 2 in g, op. 73 (1899)
HOLST Gustav (1874-1934)

Short Pianoforte Trio in E (1894)
BAX Sir Arnold (1883-1952)

Piano Trio in B flat (1946)
Recorded Conway Hall, London, 3rd-5th August 1994
ASV CD DCA 925 [71í42"]

 

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The second of these two discs has been around for some time, but since I did not review it when first issued I will take the opportunity to comment on the two discs together.

Stanford wrote his first chamber works in 1877, a Sonata for cello and piano (op. 9) and another for violin and piano (op. 11). These are already purposeful and resourceful pieces, full of the enthusiasm of youth. You can hear the Violin Sonata on Hyperion CDA 67024 (coupled with the second Violin Sonata and some shorter pieces). A recording of the Cello Sonata, also coupled with Stanfordís second Sonata for the instrument, is on the way.

Estimable and enjoyable as these two works are, I doubt if even a listener experienced in Stanford, hearing them blind, would recognise the composerís voice in them. This is my first encounter with the first Piano Quartet of 1879 and the possibility for someone to test it on me blind has now gone for ever, but it seems to me that in those two years Stanfordís voice (at least in this work, he was never entirely consistent, alas) has become unmistakably imbued with little turns of phrase and harmony that are both Stanfordian and Irish.

That Stanford could now write music which was clear-cut in form, melodious and easy to assimilate, yet also not without substance, need surprise nobody for in that same year he wrote a piece which has proved, in its unassuming rightness, immortal Ė the Service in B flat, op. 10 (and in particular the Te Deum). As for his growing Irish accent, he had published his first two Irish songs in 1876: "From the Red Rose" and "Irish Eyes" (Felicity Lott sings the first of these in her anthology "My Garden", Hyperion CDA 66937). These were Stanfordís first collaborations with A. P. Graves who was in due course to provide texts for most of his Irish folk-song settings (some 130). Several of the settings which were later gathered into "50 Songs of Old Ireland" (1882) began to appear in the late 1870s so we can suppose that Irish music was by now an ongoing concern with Stanford.

The first Piano Quartet also gains from the fact that the composer does not appear to be trying to prove a point (part of the problem with the often impressive Second Symphony of the following year), just enjoying himself. The first movement opens like Brahms with a touch of Irish blarney, and Mendelssohnian chit-chat is sometimes not far away, but then in the development he suddenly retreats to the Irish hills, dwelling on his themes most poetically. It is a lovely moment, and the return to the opening bustle is excellently timed.

This is followed by a teasing hop-jig (i.e. in 9/8 instead of 6/8) with a more static trio section Ė if the work has a weakness it is here. But the slow movement is really glorious. Rarely did Stanford write with such generous romantic impulse. Forgetting for once that in chamber music you are supposed to be Brahmsian and classical, there is a passionate sweep to this which looks ahead to Elgar.

Back to more homely things for the finale, but Stanford knows how to lighten his textures and in the end his energy wins the day. This quartet is a real find. Incidentally, he wrote another, op. 133, in about 1912. It was not published and I do not know whether the MS exists.

Stanfordís next chamber work was his only Piano Quintet, op. 25 (1886); though much praised, it remains unrecorded. It was followed fairly soon by the first Piano Trio (1889).

In the days when British music of this period was quite impossible to hear and those of us who felt drawn to it could only read the disparaging comments of critics of the Frank Howes/Percy M. Young generation and wonder what the music really sounded like, I cannot have been the only reader struck by Hans von Bülowís declaration on receiving the dedication of this trio: "Good gracious! What wonderful progress your country is making owing to your genius". Furthermore, when Bülow added that it was, together with Brahmsís third Violin Sonata, the best piece to have been dedicated to him, he was by implication rating it above DvořŠkís Fifth Symphony, which had been dedicated to him two years earlier. High praise, and it may be a measure of the workís underground reputation that a secondhand dealer was already asking £100 for a copy of the score almost ten years ago. Stanfordian as I am, youíve got to draw a line somewhere and I have at last come to know the piece thanks to this record.

It had better be said that, after the cheerful Irishness of the Piano Quartet, the first movement of the Trio has a more Germanic seriousness. However, the material is clear-cut and well-handled and the movement unfolds spaciously, easily filling its nine minutes. The following Allegretto con moto has a wistful charm which is more definitely Irish. You may think from the "Tempo di menuetto ma molto moderato" marking of the third movement that Stanford has shied away from writing a real slow movement, yet such is the spacious nobility of this minuet theme that the heart goes away nourished after all. The problem may be the finale. I wonít go so far as to say that its galloping theme is exactly an upside-down version of the finale of Chopinís second Piano Sonata, but itís uncomfortably close. Stanfordian as I am, I also thought, more in terms of atmosphere than actual notes, of another galloping piece of his own, his setting of "Windy Nights", and couldnít help feeling that Stevensonís words describe the musicís formal procedures only too well: "By at the gallop he goes, and then By he comes back at the gallop again". Itís the sort of energetic finale that keeps on stopping just so that it can start again. Of course itís entertaining and Lewis Foremanís excellent notes Ė not otherwise required to make special pleading Ė suggest it is an evocative portrayal of Stanford himself in his mid-thirties. Maybe Iíll come to see it that way in time.

For his next chamber works Stanford turned at last to music for strings without piano, completing two String Quartets in August 1891 (opp. 44 and 45). These are both very fine works, and quite different from one another. Hereafter his chamber production was dominated by the string quartet, completing his cycle of eight in 1919. None of these has been recorded so far and only nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5 were published so all eight may not have survived. However, a recording of no. 8 was made by a quartet led by Carl Pini for the BBC over 30 years ago and has occasionally been re-broadcast. I heard it once and was mightily impressed. He also composed two String Quintets in 1903 (opp. 85 and 86); again, only one was published and neither has been recorded.

Stanford turned to chamber music with piano rather more sporadically after about 1890. His second, and last, Cello Sonata, op. 39, came in 1893 (the opus numbers have got out of sequence, compare the dates and numbers of the first two String Quartets) and the second Violin Sonata, op. 70, in c. 1898. A fairly consistent stream of smaller (but not necessarily insignificant) pieces for violin and piano continued to flow from his pen and he made some rather odd experiments in later life Ė the two Sonatas for Violin with Piano Accompaniment, op. 165 (c. 1919), an attempt to revive the baroque-style sonata where the piano had a purely subordinate role, and culminating in a curious foray into the world of light music, the 5 Bagatelles, op. 183 (c.1921). Curiouser and curiouser, actually, are the Fantasies for Clarinet and String Quartet (1921-2), recorded by Thea King and the Britten String Quartet on Hyperion CDA 66479 (another Fantasy for horn and string quartet remains unrecorded). Mention of the clarinet reminds me that the fine Sonata of 1911, op. 129 is something of a special case. Fortunately it has been recorded several times.

As for larger combinations of strings with piano, apart from the solitary second Piano Quartet of c. 1912 there remain two further Piano Trios which, though few compared with the String Quartets, conveniently straddle Stanfordís output, the second dating from 1899 and the last, op. 168, from 1918. Unlike the cycle of String Quartets, all three were published and have thus remained relatively accessible, even if we still await a recording of no. 3.

Unfortunately Stanford was far too complex a figure to be summed up by three works in the same genre. Let me just place the second Trio in a list of some of his acknowledged successes written around the same time, limiting myself to works that have been recorded and which readers can therefore check for themselves.

Requiem, op. 66 (1896)

Violin Sonata no. 2, op. 70 (c.1898)

Variations on Down among the Dead Men, op. 71 (c1898)

Piano Trio no. 2, op. 73 (1899)

Violin Concerto no. 1, op. 74 (1899)

An Irish Idyll, Song Cycle, op. 77 (c.1901)

Irish Rhapsody no. 1, op. 78 (1902)

Clarinet Concerto, op. 80 (1902)

Service in G major, op. 81 (1904)

In their various ways, all these works (and several others from the same period which I have not listed because readers have no means of hearing them) explore aspects of Stanford which are both personal and deeply poetic. In particular, all those who enthused over the recent issue of the first Violin Concerto (Hyperion CDA 67208) will not find "more of the same" in the work which immediately preceded it (nor will they in its immediate successor, the choral piece "Last Post", op. 75, but in this case the power and dignity of the music should readily appeal to them). This Piano Trio is one of the works where Stanfordís sheer ease of utterance tells against him.

As one who (or so I like to think) speaks easily enough when there is something to say, but has some difficulty in filling in holes in the conversation willy-nilly, I feel amazement and even envy when I find myself in a situation like a train journey of several hours, during which somebody over the other side of the aisle manages to talk non-stop. Maybe they say nothing of great moment, but nor do they say things that are unworthy to be said, and I just donít know how they do it. Stanford was a born talker in music. He was also a musical poet, but when the poetry was not there, give him a bit of manuscript paper and a pen (yes, a pen, he wrote his scores straight out in ink without preliminary sketches) and he will fill it for you with music which is fluent and attractive, but which covers rather than reveals his own deepest nature.

The second Piano Trio is by Stanford the talker but does that make it worthless? No, the first movement is a warmly Brahmsian affair which the performers might have allowed to unfold more spaciously. I havenít commented on the performances so far because those of the first Trio and the Quartet are entirely satisfying and left me free to appreciate the music. The disc of no. 2 was made four years earlier and that can be a long time in young musiciansí development. It seems to me that in those four years they (and especially the pianist) have learnt that Stanford is a major composer who can speak for himself and not a minor composer who you have to "do things with" to make him interesting. They try to take the first movement by storm and pitch in in a way that would have been fine if it had been marked "Allegro impetuoso" instead of "Allegro moderato". Come the second subject and they have to slow down, but this is the tempo they should have adopted for the whole movement.

The Andante is warm-hearted despite a not very memorable theme. The poet in Stanford comes out to decorate its reprise and to provide an exquisite coda. The scherzo is a vigorous affair, its schmaltzy trio bordering on the memorable (and here the playersí headlong approach is entirely in order). The finale opens with a slow introduction in which Stanford the public speaker does what he thinks is expected of him but once the "Allegro con fuoco" is under way it is vastly entertaining. Also this finale put me in mind of a Stanford song, one he hadnít written yet: "The Old Superb" (1904). Since this is almost "pop" Stanford, I daresay a lot of listeners will find themselves singing along to the words "Round the world if need be, And round the world again", and maybe reflecting that, just as the finale of the first Trio gallops backwards and forwards, so this one goes round and round. However, given the type of finale it is, perhaps here at least the second Trio has the edge over the first, for this theme does stick in your mind afterwards.

So, a work with quite enough in it to be worth hearing, but if you donít know the pieces in the list above, get them first. While the other disc deserves the attention of all who like romantic chamber music, British or not.

Stanfordís third Piano Trio, op. 158, was dedicated to the memory of some of his friends and pupils who had died during the First World War. It has received a lot of critical flak; on paper it seems spare, almost gaunt, but pithy. I have a hunch that it may prove more impressive in performance than it looks, and I hope that the Pirasti Trio will complete their cycle before long. Most urgently, I hope someone will soon give us the first two String Quartets.

The Pirasti Trio complete the earlier of their two discs with works by the next generation of British composers. The Holst Trio Ė locked away by the composer and given its first performance by this team in 1994, a hundred years after its composition Ė was written while Holst was studying with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and actually predates the Stanford second Trio by five years. Donít expect it to sound like Holst but it is amiable, tuneful and, in the first two movements, well-constructed. A certain luminosity in the piano writing gives it a slightly French sound. No pre-echoes of the mature Holst at all? Well, Iím afraid there is one. In view of Stanfordís own track record I donít know what his comment on the stop-go finale might have been, but Holstís weakness even in his maturity was that, when inspiration was lacking, he would do the unexpected and hope it would pass off as originality. So he does here. As a rag-bag of disconnected ideas (the Chopin bit is really zany in this context) this finale is entertaining in a way not intended.

In their choice of Bax, the Pirasti Trio have illogically chosen one of the few front-rank British composers of the early 20th Century who didnít study with Stanford but in the first movement at least the quality of the music is its own justification. Though Bax wrote chamber music throughout his career his only Piano Trio was a late work (1946). Leaving far behind him the hedonistic romanticism of his earlier orchestral scores, this first movement organises a wide range of thematic material in a way that is both concise and memorable. I am not sure that the remaining two movements are on this level since they remind us that Bax, like Stanford, could always summon up technical fluency when inspiration was short. Do the rather menacing gestures towards the end of the slow movement really mean anything, for instance, or did he just feel that the time had come for something of the kind? Still, a Trio that starts so well is worth persevering with and Bax is never unattractive.

The recordings are good, especially on the earlier disc Ė I immediately realised, before looking, that the more recent one was recorded in a church, giving a certain booming quality to the piano bass. But I got used to it. With the reservation I made above concerning the first movement of the Stanford second Trio, the performances are admirable and highly committed.

Christopher Howell


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