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alternatively Crotchet

Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Symphony No.4 in F major, op.31 (1888) [42:49]
Symphony No.7 in D minor, op.124 (1911) [28:23]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 2-3 June 2006, The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK
NAXOS 8.570285 [70:52]

For some time now collectors have had only one source for the majority of the Stanford symphonies, namely the fine set that Vernon Handley made for Chandos between 1986 and 1990. That set still retains its allure but it’s good to find that this disc is the first of a promised new cycle from Naxos, as this will give collectors a choice.
The Fourth Symphony was written to a commission from Berlin and its first performance was given there in 1889 when Stanford received the accolade of a whole concert devoted to his music, which he conducted. On the same programme the great Joseph Joachim played Stanford’s Suite for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 32 (Hyperion CDA67208 – see review). Much comment has been made in the past about Stanford’s debt, in his orchestral music at least, to Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Those benign influences are at work in this symphony and, as such, I imagine the new piece would have been well received by the Berlin audience.
In his note accompanying the Handley recording Lewis Foreman points out that originally Stanford inscribed a motto on the score, though he later withdrew it:

Thro’ Youth to Strife
Thro’ Death to Life

The first movement is animated and demonstrates a strong lyrical impulse. In addition to the composers mentioned above I’d include Dvořák as another beneficent influence on both the scoring and the ambience of the music. It’s fresh and entertaining music, made even more enjoyable by the crisp, rhythmically vital playing that David Lloyd-Jones obtains from the Bournemouth players. In the second movement Stanford follows the lead given by Brahms, designating the movement as an intermezzo. It’s here that I find Stanford’s withdrawn motto least helpful – perhaps that’s why Richard Whitehouse doesn’t mention it in his note for Naxos?  To my ears there’s very little evidence of strife in the music. Rather, the music is mainly graceful and warm and the climax (around 6:30) is very brief.
The third movement, Andante molto moderato, is the heart of the work. The string writing in the opening paragraphs is quite searching and overall the music sounds “Bigger” than anything we’ve heard in the previous two movements. About half way through (around 6:15) a more optimistic, flowing passage is reached in which the harp is prominent. There’s a definite lightening of the mood and shortly afterwards the brass enrich a rather grand climax. If indeed this movement did treat of death in Stanford’s original scheme of things then perhaps he moved during its course from sorrow to acceptance? At the very end I hear patrician grief in the music. In summary this is an impressive, eloquent movement.
The finale is good humoured and energetic and there’s a strong rhythmic impulse throughout most of the movement. It’s a sunny conclusion to a most enjoyable symphony.
The Seventh Symphony was another commissioned work, this time for the centenary of the Philharmonic Society of London. Richard Whitehouse comments that by the time this symphony was penned in 1911 Stanford “had been overtaken by Elgar and a younger generation of composers, many of whom had been his students.” That statement is undeniably true in respect of Elgar but I’d question the extent to which many of what was to be a distinguished lineage of Stanford pupils had really made their reputations secure by 1911.
Whitehouse is correct, however, to point out the “Mendelssohnian lightness” of this symphony, which was decidedly out of step with the more opulent orchestral scores then being turned out by a wide variety of composers. As Lewis Foreman avers, the Seventh is “essentially a nineteenth-century work, a summation rather than a departure.” The first movement is all clean lines and energy; there’s a decidedly positive feel to the music. The second movement is designated as a Minuet, though the tempo is that of a slow minuet. Is this another Stanford symphonic intermezzo, even though it doesn’t bear that title? The third movement is a set of five variations on what Whitehouse rightly calls a “tenderly expressive” theme. The finale, which follows without a break, strides out confidently on full orchestra from the outset. The second subject (3:04), led off by the violins, is more flowing but no less upbeat in mood. The brief coda provides a suitably affirmative end to what was Stanford’s most concise symphony, and the one that turned out to be his last.
Both of these symphonies are very enjoyable pieces. However, I’m bound to say that, despite listening to them several times and despite having heard them before in Handley’s performances, I don’t find that they truly lodge in the memory. They sound to be expertly crafted and Stanford unfailingly writes engaging music that is, as I say, enjoyable. But in the last analysis perhaps they lack that last ounce of distinctiveness and distinction that would elevate them to the highest level in the symphonic repertoire. Nonetheless both symphonies are very well worth while getting to know though, regretfully, it seems unlikely that either will be heard often in the concert hall. That makes recordings such as these all the more valuable and vital These two symphonies offer persuasive confirmation that symphonic music of genuine quality was being written in England at the turn of the twentieth century by composers other than Elgar.     
Stanford is very well served by David Lloyd-Jones and the Bournemouth orchestra. The performances are spirited and convincing and the playing is first class throughout. The recorded sound is excellent. The notes by Richard Whitehouse are good but I was glad that I had access to Lewis Foreman’s comments also to fill out the picture.
So the Naxos Stanford cycle is launched auspiciously and I look forward keenly to further instalments, the second being reviewed very shortly.

John Quinn 
see also review by Christopher Howell

British Composers on Naxos page 


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