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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Cello Concerto in D minor (1st movement cadenza by Alexander Baillie) (1879-1880) [27:36]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major op.171 (orchestrated by Geoffrey Bush) (1919) [37:43]
Alexander Baillie (cello) Malcolm Binns (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite
rec. dates and location not given
LYRITA SRCD.321 [65:23]



When a composer’s suppressed and unfinished works make it onto CD it can fairly be said he’s arrived!
 
Stanford’s first work for solo instrument and orchestra was a Rondo in F for cello (1869) which is not known to have been performed. It was followed by a Piano Concerto in B flat (1873), a Violin Concerto in D (1875) and the Cello Concerto recorded here, of which only the first achieved a performance. These early works were all suppressed, but not destroyed, by Stanford. The Rondo and the earlier two concerto are juvenilia indeed, pre-dating the First Symphony, though Jeremy Dibble’s descriptions of them (Charles Villiers Stanford: Man and Musician, OUP 2002) suggest they may be worth a hearing at some stage. The Cello Concerto has always struck me as a more enticing proposition, partly because it is roughly contemporary with the rather impressive Second Symphony and partly because romantic cello concertos are not exactly numerous.
 
The concerto was written for Robert Hausmann, who had given performances of Stanford’s First Cello Sonata in both England and Germany – see Jonathan Woolf’s review of the recording of this by Alison Moncrieff Kelly and the undersigned. The composer submitted the work to Hausmann for suggestions over the cello part and duly made a revised version. However, only the slow movement was ever played, at Cambridge in 1884, in an arrangement with piano accompaniment. The space for a cadenza in the first movement was left blank and has been filled by Alexander Baillie for this recording.
 
The first movement actually sounds more Irish than anything in the Second Symphony. The challenging opening gesture and the soloist’s lyrical answer are consistent with the opening gambit of the Clarinet Concerto op.80 (1902) and certain phrases anticipate the first movement of the Second Piano Concerto op.126 (1911). They are not exactly the same, but every time I heard this movement I found bits of the later work running through my head afterwards. Aside from this, the first movement is an impressive affair, its contrasting materials confidently laid out. Stanford adopts the Mendelssohnian principle of a shared exposition rather than an orchestral ritornello and the dialogue between the cello and the wind soloists at the start of the development is particularly bewitching.
 
The themes of the slow movement have not yet lodged in my mind but my attention was always held. Stanford was already a master of continuous thematic development so the listener’s interest is constantly renewed. This makes a striking contrast with the slow movement of the Violin Concerto I recently discussed by Stanford’s little-appreciated teacher Reinecke, where a strong initial idea is gradually brought to nothing because the composer just goes round and round in circles. An amiable finale in something like polka-rhythm concludes a concerto which should logically be a welcome addition to cellists’ repertoire. Don’t expect an Irish counterpart to Dvořák’s masterpiece – which had not yet been written. Nor will you find that Elgar’s much-loved work has had a glorious British partner all these years and nobody ever knew. But I’d sooner hear the Stanford than the Schumann or the Saint-Saëns cello concertos, none of which have ever done as much for me as their composers’ names suggest they should.
 
I have no faults to find in Baillie’s performance, but I do wonder if he hasn’t overreached himself in the cadenza. Lewis Foreman tells us that it “ranges widely over Stanford’s thematic material” but, for better or worse, it goes further than that. At its sombre heart it introduces an Irish folksong from the Petrie collection, called there simply “Caoine”, which Stanford also arranged under the title of “The Falling Star” op.76/18 (1901) and used in his Second Irish Rhapsody op.82 (1903). I don’t know if Baillie believes there is a thematic connection between the folksong and Stanford’s own themes in the Concerto. I don’t find one, except insofar as the main theme of the Concerto first movement begins with a wide upward interval followed by gently falling ones, a characteristic of many Irish melodies of a certain type. Apart from the Caoine in question, “The Last Rose of Summer” is another example which most readers will easily recall. The result is a piece that might be impressive played on its own as a sort of Irish Ballade for solo cello, but is simply too long – and too sombre? – for the context.
 
At the height of his fame, Stanford was quite successful in getting his concertos and other works for solo instrument and orchestra performed by famous artists. The Suite in D op.32 for violin (1888) was premiered in Berlin by Joachim, the “official” First Piano Concerto op.59 (1894) was played by Leonard Borwick and was also heard in Berlin; it was Borwick again who presented the Concert Variations on an English Theme op.71 (c.1897-8) while Arbos, and later Kreisler, played the “official” First Violin Concerto op.74 (1899). These have all been recorded and links to reviews are given below.
 
With the dawning of the 20th century Stanford was beginning to look old-fashioned and things got more difficult. Symptomatic might be Mühlfeld’s refusal to play the Clarinet Concerto op.80 (1902). Despite occasional outings, recognition of this as one of the very few romantic clarinet concertos of real stature was hampered by lack of publication until 1977. The Second Piano Concerto op.126 (1911) had to wait some time for its first performance (Norfolk, Connecticut 1915) though eventually Moiseiwitsch took it up. The Third Irish Rhapsody op.137 (1913), for cello and orchestra, is not known to have been performed at all until 1987.
 
During the difficult war years Stanford was able to conduct both his First Violin Concerto and his Second Piano Concerto with the RCM orchestra. The soloist in the former was Margaret Harrison, sister of the better-remembered May and Beatrice. The experience seems to have unlocked a new spate of concertos and other pieces for solo instrument and orchestra: the Ballata and Ballabile op.160 for cello and orchestra (1918), the Irish Concertino op.161 for violin and cello (1918), the Second Violin Concerto op.162 (1918), the Third Piano Concerto op.171 (1919), the Variations for violin and orchestra op.180 (1921), the Concert Piece for organ, brass, drums and strings op.181 (1921) and the Sixth Irish Rhapsody for violin and orchestra (1922). Only the Irish Concertino and the Sixth Rhapsody, plus Ballata and Ballabile in a version with piano accompaniment, were heard during Stanford’s lifetime. Three of these works – the two Concertos and the Variations – exist only in short scores with the orchestral part reduced for piaNo. Simon Rodmell (Charles Villiers Stanford, Ashgate 2002) and Lewis Foreman, in the notes to the present CD, presume the full scores have been lost. Jeremy Dibble, however, has suggested that they may never have been written. Given the speed at which Stanford was composing all this, the short scores would have been sufficient to submit to potential soloists and the composer’s consummate technique would have enabled him to supply a full score quickly if a performance was actually promised. I must say I find this entirely plausible – the existence of three roughly contemporary works in the same state hardly seems a coincidence. The late Geoffrey Bush, a great admirer of Stanford and of the Second Piano Concerto in particular – he provided the sleeve-note for the Lyrita LP – undertook the orchestration of the Third Piano Concerto. In view of the quality of the music which now emerges it is to be hoped that Jeremy Dibble, who has already orchestrated the choral cantata “Merlin and the Gleam” – the full score of which was lost when a Stainer & Bell warehouse collapsed into the Wash – will provide us with the means to hear the two violin works.
 
Stanfordian as I am, I have nevertheless never been entirely happy with either of the first two Piano Concertos. The opening of No. 1 is so entrancing that it always arouses new hopes of finding more in it than before. Yet the discrepancy between a work which is avowedly of a “bright and butterfly nature” and one which lasts nearly 40 minutes does not go away with repeated hearings and I continue to find it agreeable, but inflated and unmemorable.
 
The themes of No. 2 are of a stronger cut and are easily recalled. And yet, even here I tend to find Stanford blustering where he intends to exult, perhaps in the hope of convincing us that this really is a long piece – nearly 40 minutes again – rather than a shorter one blown up. I was far happier with the expansive First Violin Concerto, which struck me as a possible masterpiece, while the Clarinet Concerto is a succinct, formally ingenious work whose beauties are surely recognized by now. 
 
In terms of scale, the Third Piano Concerto yields little to the other two. However, each theme carries its contrasting pendant with it, providing the first movement with a greater thematic richness than previously. The themes and their pendants are continually transformed and mingled with the result that what appears to be more rhapsodic than before is actually the most rigorously controlled of the three first movements. It sustains its 18 minutes with breathtaking mastery.
 
Nor does inspiration flag in the slow movement. The piano’s first entry is magically prepared, and it then unfolds a theme of great beauty and simplicity. This is subsequently developed in a series of variations until a darker mood is reached, leading to the most overtly passionate music in the concerto. The original mood is not regained; instead the finale breaks out with a sort of impish humour which should have been tailor-made for Moiseiwitsch. The secondary material is gently poetic, distinctly Irish. In the Second Concerto Stanford attempted to inflate such material into a grand finale, but perhaps he came to see that what was true to Rachmaninov was not true to him. He ends in a mood of touching reminiscence, just breaking off for a brief, deft and humorous final pay-off.
 
I hope I will still feel the same way in ten or twenty years’ time. Right now this seems to me easily the finest of Stanford’s piano concertos, a rich masterpiece and one of the few British romantic piano concertos with a real claim to international recognition.
 
Malcolm Binns probably has a longer experience of Stanford’s piano music than any other pianist before the public. He made the first recording of the Second Concerto back in the days of LP, but I recollect him playing the Dante Rhapsodies on the radio even before that and I believe he has broadcast a number of the other solo works. He plays the gentler passages of this concerto with exquisite sensitivity. Unfortunately, in the forte passages he reveals the same failing I have noted in the past, namely a sort of vertical bashing, with heavily biffed-out accents, rather than maintaining a horizontal, rounded, singing tone in the thickest textures, or a sparkling lightness in the brilliant passages. This failing, technical rather musical I feel, is less noticeable in the Third Concerto than in the Second, simply because the music itself is gentler, and I therefore do not wish to make too much of it. I don’t know what alternatives we are likely to have, or when. This is music that should be heard, and more of it is beautifully played than not.
 
Nicholas Braithwaite was also Binns’ partner in the Second Concerto, as well as conducting a Fourth Rhapsody which is notably more musical than that under Vernon Handley. Once again, he is unfailingly musical and flexible in his response to the soloists, though without seeking the ultimate in dynamic shading or precision of ensemble. But let’s face it, the news could have been infinitely worse. The recordings are excellent, as are Foreman’s notes. Why are Lyrita so reluctant to give details of recording dates, venues, producers and engineers?

Christopher Howell

see also reviews by John France and Rob Barnett

Full Lyrita catalogue

Links to other reviews of Stanford Concertos
Clarinet Concerto
King (Hyperion): myself (includes comparisons with Thomson and Hilton)
Thurston (Symposium, 1952 performance): Jonathan Woolf

Suite op.32 & Violin Concerto No. 1
Marwood (Hyperion): myself and Chris Fifield

Piano Concerto No. 1
Lane (Hyperion): myself and Raymond Walker

Piano Concerto No. 2
Binns (Lyrita): Colin Clarke
Jetter (Antes): Rob Barnett
Fingerhut (Chandos, w/Concert Variations on an English Theme): myself

 
Also referred to above is the folksong arrangement “The Stolen Heart”. This is included in a recital by Ann Murray on Hyperion, reviewed by Em Marshall.

The Concert Piece for Organ, Brass, Drums and Strings op.181 was recorded by Gillian Weir/Vernon Handley on CHAN 8861 but was not reviewed by MusicWeb and may not be currently available.

The Ballata (only) of the Ballata and Ballabile can be heard, in its cello and piano version, on the Cello Sonata disc mentioned above.
 



 


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