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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Cello Sonata No.1 in A major Op.9 (1877)
Cello Sonata No.2 in D minor Op.39 (1889)
Ballata Op.160 No.1 (1918) performing edition by Christopher Howell
Alison Moncrieff Kelly (cello)
Christopher Howell (piano)
No Recording details [2003?]


The portfolio of Stanford’s string sonatas has been much enriched over the last decade or so and this release does for the Cello works what Paul Barritt and Catherine Edwards did for the Violin Sonatas in their Hyperion disc. In the same way that Suzanne Stanzeleit and Gusztáv Fenyö set down the First Violin Sonata, back in 2000, so Julian Lloyd Webber and John McCabe recorded the Second Cello Sonata in a 1993 ASV disc. Both the Stanzeleit and Lloyd Webber recordings were however a single disc conspectus of British string works and not, as here, devoted solely to Stanford. So this Meridian disc allows us to narrow our sights still further on the composer and to weigh up his contribution to the cello literature.

The First Sonata was written in 1877 for Robert Hausmann, a noted friend of Brahms, cellist of the Joachim Quartet and one of the most eminent string players in Europe. Despite Stanford’s professed admiration for Brahms, whose own first Cello Sonata had been written a dozen years before, it’s not a work much steeped in Brahmsian rhetoric. And nor, to be fair, could I detect any Stanford fingerprints either, unless one counts the Celtic hints in the second movement Allegretto and they’re not readily traceable. This is a well-crafted and warm work opening with an old-fashioned Andante introduction, which soon opens out into lyrical geniality and flourishing passagework, albeit of a slightly diffuse kind. Those Celtic hints are in the central section of the Allegretto Vivace, witty, alive, rhythmically propulsive, and Stanford doing something he does often and well in these works, namely beautiful piano writing under a pizzicato passage for the cello which sounds free, easy and deliciously fresh. Christopher Howell writes in his notes of the similarity of the finale to Brahms’ contemporary First Symphony (written the year before) and there is an intense curve to the Molto Adagio section, along with the more lighthearted cantilever of the Allegro conclusion.

The Second Sonata was dedicated to probably the greatest cellist of his generation, Alfredo Piatti, and actually written at the cellist’s villa by Lake Como. The piano writing here is notably thicker and more chordally flourishing, blockier, less Mendelssohnian. As often as not the piano is primus inter pares in the Allegretto First Movement and the sense of Sturm und Drang quite powerfully developed, as are also those moments of yielding lyric introspection. One of the most remarkable moments is the passage for cello pizzicato (once more) that is almost operatic, certainly explicitly vocalised and irresistibly beautiful – and all the more touching in retrospect by virtue of the close of the movement, one not untouched by doubt. There’s noble dignity in the slow movement with its two scherzi – and despite the levity there’s always that Stanfordian admixture of pain, even here, and some expressive plangency. If the piano seemed to lead in the earlier movement it’s very definitely the cello that commands the field here, notwithstanding the rich writing for the piano. There’s an arresting fugato start to the finale and some terpsichorean incident, even if Stanford hasn’t really solved the finale problem; after the tempestuous writing earlier it’s a slight let down.

The Ballata dates from 1918, is unpublished and has been edited for performance by Christopher Howell. Unlike the sonatas this was originally written for Cello and Orchestra in the form of Ballata and Ballabile Op. 160 (there wasn’t enough room on the disc for the Ballabile). It has some rather decorative late nineteenth century cellistic curlicues though it simplifies as it develops and sheds the impersonal preferring instead an increasingly lyrical profile. Well worth hearing.

The performances are fine, with both musicians evincing total identification. Howell, as readers know, is something of an authority on Stanford and Alison Moncrieff Kelly proves a worthy partner. Her tone is quite lean and sometimes there’s a bit of a buzz in her lower strings but she gives full rein to Stanford’s lyricism. The recording is generally well balanced but there are moments (see the first movement of the First Sonata) when her lower notes are occasionally covered. But as I said in my introduction this is a genuinely useful addition to the cello literature and a boon to admirers – an increasing number it’s good to observe – of Charles Villiers Stanford.

Jonathan Woolf

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