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
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
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
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
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.