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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Symphony no. 2 in D minor – "Elegiac" (1879-80 rev. 1882) [34:46]
Symphony no. 5 in D major – "L’Allegro ed il Penseroso" op. 56 (1894, rev. 1923) [39:47]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 29-30 June and 25-26 July 2006, The Concert Hall, Poole, Dorset, UK
NAXOS 8.570289 [74:33]

The second instalment of Naxos’s Stanford cycle neatly couples two works based on famous English poems: Tennyson’s "In Memoriam" and Milton’s "L’Allegro ed il Penseroso".

Accounts of the genesis of the Second Symphony vary slightly, so perhaps it is worth trying to sort them out. Richard Whitehouse’s notes to the present issue tell is that it was "composed in the summer of 1880". Lewis Foreman, too, wrote in his notes for the first recording of the work, by Vernon Handley on Chandos, that it was "written in the summer of 1880".

Jeremy Dibble, however, in "Charles Villiers Stanford, Man and Musician" (OUP 2002, pp.106-7), states that "Stanford embarked on a new symphony in July 1879". This, then would have been an immediate response to the fairly successful première of his First Symphony at Crystal Palace in March 1879. "The work was finished in October", Dibble continues, "at which time Stanford wrote to Henry [presumably he means William] Cummings asking if it might be offered to the Philharmonic Society" (letter from Stanford to William Cummings, 17 October 1879).

However, Stanford clearly continued to work on the first movement since – again quoting Dibble – "the manuscript bears a much later date of completion (21 December 1880)".

All this is more than mere quibbling since Stanford’s father had died suddenly and unexpectedly on 17 July 1880. In spite of the "Elegiac" title Stanford did not dedicate the work to any specific person’s memory. Obviously proper chronology is crucial to the question of what it does or doesn’t illustrate.

If it was really composed in "the summer of 1880", that would make it an immediate reaction to his father’s sudden death. The letter quoted by Dibble shows that it was already in existence well before that. Furthermore, Dibble, while not quoting Stanford’s actual words in the letter to Cummings, tells us that "Stanford stated specifically that the symphony was not programme music; nevertheless it was intended to illustrate Tennyson’s cantos and identify the emotional states of the four verses with the corresponding movements of the symphony".

It would be tempting to look at the December 1880 date on the first movement and suppose that Stanford had revised the symphony to give it an elegiac tone – and he revised it again in January 1882 before it was finally performed at Cambridge in March of that year. The letter to Cummings makes it clear that it was elegiac and Tennyson-inspired from its conception, however much Stanford may have fiddled around with it between October 1879 and January 1882. Rather than looking for someone in Stanford’s life who had died at about the right time to set him onto writing an "Elegiac Symphony" in July 1879, perhaps we may suppose that Stanford simply found inspiration in the work of a poet who was a personal friend of his and to whose verses he frequently turned throughout his career.

Paul Rodmell (Charles Villiers Stanford, Ashgate 2002, p.87) is therefore correct in remarking that "It is not clear if Stanford intended to commemorate anyone in particular in the symphony; ironically, his father died between its composition and first performance." However, Rodmell continues: "Although it is tempting, and possible, to match each stanza with a movement, it is not evident that this is what Stanford intended". As the letter to Cummings shows, Stanford did intend just that.

At this point I had better quote the verses in question.

I cannot see the features right,

When on the gloom I strive to paint

The face I know; the hues are faint

And mix with hollow masks of night;

Cloud-towers by ghostly masons wrought,

A gulf that ever shuts and gapes,

A hand that points, and palled shapes

In shadowy thoroughfares of thought;

And crowds that stream from yawning doors,

And shoals of pucker’d faces drive;

Dark bulks that tumble half alive,

And lazy lengths on boundless shores;

Till all at once beyond the will

I hear a wizard music roll,

And thro’ a lattice on the soul

Looks thy fair face and makes it still.

Any attempt to link the poem to the music is likely to come up against the consideration that Tennyson’s verse has a mystic pregnancy and power that Stanford achieved less consistently in his work, and certainly not here. In other words, too much delving into the literary genesis of the piece may get in the way of our enjoyment of a vital and attractive, if hardly great, symphony. However, a few correspondences can be pointed out, and I think the poem provides a big clue to our understanding of the finale, and indeed of the "death to life" programme Stanford often favoured in later works.

Though in one sense the first movement is in completely orthodox sonata form, the actual proportions are a little unusual. The exposition is extremely succinct, with a pithy main theme leading almost immediately to a more lyrical second subject in the relative major. About half of the exposition is therefore taken up by what is technically a codetta, the material of which comes dangerously close to quoting Schumann’s "Rhenish" Symphony. Even with the repeat played, the development is already under way around the 4½-minute mark. This development is more imaginative than its premises might have led us to expect. Furthermore, when one might suppose it to be nearing its end, it is extended, leading to a triumphant affirmation of the major key. The triumph quickly collapses, however. The minor key returns and the recapitulation slips in somewhat dejectedly. The generally driving pace of the movement thus far is allowed to slacken momentarily in second subject territory. The coda builds up strongly and the movement ends in tragedy.

I take it that the long development, with its piecing together of thematic fragments, illustrates Tennyson’s attempt to "see the features right". The deceptive D major blaze represents near success before the vision fades and the "hollow masks of night" take over.

I was considerably impressed by this movement when the Handley recording appeared. I felt, though, that his brisk tempo and smart phrasing denied the piece breathing space. The music was prevented from unfolding with full grandeur in its stronger moments, while a more loving treatment of the second subject would have allowed its song-like nature to flower. Whether the approach I have in mind would actually work is still not put to the test. Far be it from me to suggest that David Lloyd-Jones prepared the recording by studying Handley’s performance rather than the score. But the two could not be more alike had he deliberately set out with the intention of making them so. If put to a blindfold test, I don’t believe I could identify one from the other.

The second movement is perhaps the most obviously attractive. My only concern is that so far no theme from it has actually lodged itself in my memory. As a result of reviewing this disc shortly after dealing with a version of Elgar’s 2nd Symphony I now note that one of the themes, based on upward intervals that gradually become wider ("A gulf that ever shuts and gapes"?), has a curious resemblance to a theme in the finale of that work, though with a character very far from Elgar’s combination of striving and jubilation. Presumably a coincidence. However, it is just conceivable that Elgar was present in Gloucester Cathedral on 6 September 1882, when Charles Harford Lloyd conducted the only other complete performance of the "Elegiac" before the 1990s. There is also a progression which seems to have got into Stanford’s next symphony, the "Irish". Leaving aside the question of memorableness, I have always found this a satisfying and engaging movement. Like the first, it pops the occasional surprise. The solo cello episode matched with the woodwind, first in the lower register then rising to the upper one, is a harbinger of Stanford’s most atmospheric later writing. The transfer of the "Elgar 2" theme to the bassoon at the recapitulation is a piquant effect. The final coda is heralded by a dramatic entrance – the only such moment in the movement. It arises expectations of a big climax to come, but instead subsides immediately and that is the end. Could this be the "hand that points"?.

Handley played this movement with considerable weight of expression. My question as to whether a real "Lento espressivo" – this moves a little too easily to my ears – might have found still more in the music is not answered by Lloyd-Jones. He is not a Handley clone this time. Instead he shaves about half a minute off Handley’s timing and keeps things deliberately lightweight. The music flows quite nicely but says less. That climax-that-isn’t at the end of the movement sounds awkward here while Handley gives it a sense.

The brief, bustling scherzo is a reasonable illustration of the "crowds that stream from yawning doors". The gentler trio, underpinned by the rhythmic motive that is present almost throughout, is a bit too pleasant for the "Dark bulks". The conclusion does surprise, with the brass chorale suggestive of happier things subsiding once again into gloom. Stanford evidently hoped the public might take to this lively movement, since he included it in a Glasgow Saturday Pops Concert on 15 December 1882.

This scherzo is pervaded by the same dotted rhythm as brings to grief most performances of the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Indeed, actual quoting from this movement and the scherzo of the Ninth is only narrowly avoided. Handley apparently does not even try to get the rhythm right and his performance slogs from the start. Ironically, when I bought the Handley, I also bought a record conducted by Lloyd-Jones (on Hyperion) that included Macfarren’s "Chevy Chace". This is another work dominated by the Beethoven 7 rhythm and it was equally slackly played. Both conductors went high on my list of conductors I hope never to hear playing Beethoven 7.

So let us rejoice for the sinner who repenteth. In this new Stanford performance Lloyd-Jones is spot on, and it makes all the difference. I should even be willing to listen to him conduct Beethoven 7.

In his next symphony, Stanford developed a type of finale in which a completely new theme was glimpsed during the development and returned in triumph at the end. He employed it again, for more specifically programmatic ends, in his Fourth Symphony. In the Second, the "darkness to light" progression is charted in a slow introduction. The movement begins in gloom, quoting the opening theme of the symphony. A gentler theme is hinted at in the relative major. Darker moments are then increasingly banished by what are to become the principal themes of the finale as the music battles its way to a big climax in D major. When the finale proper begins, however, it slips in with gentle, pastoral woodwind writing. The effect is magical. Some transition passages suggest that shadows are still around, but basically it’s now all feasting and fun to the end. The soft brass chords before the final pay-off remind us, though, that Tennyson’s friend’s "fair face" is only a far-off vision, albeit one that provides some comfort in this life. In some ways this is more satisfying than the similarly jubilant finale to the Fourth Symphony, but this may be because both conductors trivialized the latter by taking it too fast, a mistake they do not make here.

The two performances are very similar. Both make the introduction build up impressively. I wondered if a more groping start and a slower build-up might be more impressive still, but this is not put to the test. Both note Stanford’s "Allegro moderato" marking in the movement proper and take a tempo which allows such shadows as there are to make their point. Handley, however, manages slightly more amplitude of phrasing at his virtually identical tempo.

In spite of Handley’s rhythmically slack scherzo I suppose the odds are very slightly in his favour. A third recording is unlikely to appear for some time. Neither of these seriously misrepresents the work, as was the case with the Fourth Symphony.

By 1894, when he wrote "L’Allegro ed il Penseroso", Stanford had achieved international success with his Third Symphony, the "Irish". His Fourth had been well received in Berlin and at home without establishing itself in the same way. The Fifth, too, had a hearing in Berlin as well as in London. It, too, was then largely forgotten. An additional problem was that it achieved publication only in 1923.

By 1894 Stanford also had a sizeable amount of chamber music to his credit. In the first two String Quartets especially but also in the First Piano Quartet and the Piano Quintet, he had proved himself capable of handling abstract instrumental forms with considerable mastery. There is no reason, therefore, why the composer of the Second String Quartet should not have written a symphony along the same lines and with equal success. It is therefore a little surprising that all his symphonies except the first and the formally experimental last have some sort of illustrative programme or title.

Did he feel unequal to a challenge which he felt could be met in his time only by Brahms? Possibly, but modesty was not his strongest suit. He was not afraid to challenge his idol on home ground in chamber music; even if he felt unable to match Brahms as a symphonist he quite likely had no such misgivings about Dvořák or Tchaikovsky who were rapidly becoming established in the orchestral repertoire. We must suppose, therefore, that he preferred to use the orchestra for picturesque tone-painting, with the symphonic form a convenient prop rather than something central to his compositional thinking. In fact, he gradually relinquished symphonies in favour of Irish Rhapsodies, and appears to have been all the happier for it, while he continued to produce chamber works in abstract forms till practically the end of his life.

That said, if we do not expect profound symphonic thought, "L’Allegro ed il Penseroso" is an extremely felicitous piece. The Miltonic verses quoted a various points in the score are too long for inclusion here; they are given in full in the booklet, as they were in Lewis Foreman’s notes to the Handley/Chandos recording. However, the first movement basically contrasts "Loathed Melancholy" with "heart-easing Mirth".

The opening promises something more dramatic. It is not a traditional "introduction", since it is in the same tempo as the rest of the movement, yet the first subject according to traditional analysis arrives when D major is established. This "introduction" returns again at the start of the development and also before the coda. "Illustration" is therefore compromised by the demands of form, since "loathed Melancholy" is banished three times over Yet the form is also unusual since it looks like a sonata-form movement on paper yet, on account of the thrice inserted "melancholy" material, doesn’t really sound like one. An ingenious solution if not exactly a symphonic one.

Unlike the Second Symphony, I found that the themes of this one quickly stuck in my head and stayed there. I also felt that Handley slightly hustled the music along, ignoring the “moderato” part of the marking. I wished I could hear it unfold more gradually, more lovingly, like the best Czech performances of Dvořák. I still would like to hear such a performance, but oddly enough Lloyd-Jones, at a slightly faster tempo still, is completely convincing. The "melancholy" music is played as if in quotation marks and the "mirth" themes scamper rather like a Mendelssohnian scherzo. Lloyd-Jones finds more light and shade, indeed magic, but also more unity in the music.

The following movement is a delightful evocation of "hounds and horn" and village dancing, with a particularly bewitching coda. Stanford’s marking of "Allegretto grazioso" suggests something more measured than these two conductors give us and I should be interested to hear a more rustic, bucolic gait. Once again, Lloyd-Jones is faster still than Handley but convinces me more. Indeed, it’s an entrancing performance, again reminiscent of Mendelssohn in "Midsummer Night’s Dream" mood. Handley is sufficiently slower to give the opening an air of mystery, which I like, but later he sounds a little stodgy beside Lloyd-Jones.

After two movements which, Dvořák-like, are saved by their spontaneity and humanity from being merely light music, the arrival of one of Stanford’s deepest slow movements is perfectly timed. In spite of Milton’s evocations of “divinest Melancholy”, “black staid Wisdom’s hue” and the “pensive Nun", Stanford seems to have taken his cue from the "cherub Contemplation" which "soars on golden wing". The music for the most part breathes spiritual calm, though some more agitated moments arise, leading to a citation of the Symphony’s opening bars.

Lloyd-Jones’s faster timing conceals a more complicated situation than in the previous movements. At the meditative opening he actually seems a little slower than Handley, but he later lets the music move on more freely. Without a score I am not sure if any such changes are indicated but whether they are or not, they are justified, firstly because Stanford’s own writings show he expected this kind of performance and, more importantly, because the music comes to life that way. Lloyd-Jones has the art of transition, making us feel the arrival of each new theme and giving it its own space. This is probably something that can only be learnt in the opera house, and this is an experience has been rather lacking from Handley’s curriculum. The actual orchestral playing and phrasing in Handley’s performance is often beautiful, but the rigid beat is enervating.

After a delightful symphony that turns serious halfway through, will Stanford be able to write a finale which balances the various elements? In fact, he does.

The apprehensive opening ushers in a D minor theme which must surely represent "gorgeous Tragedy in sceptr’d pall". Organists will note its kinship to the popular D minor postlude and the melodic formula with which it begins is associated in Irish folk music with battle songs. Two examples worth the attention of violinists are the War Songs opp. 54/4 and 153/3. Apart from a transitional brass chorale this movement has two distinct "second subjects" in F major, a warmly expressive one mainly on the strings and a more lilting one on the horns. These three themes are introduced gently, as if as yet only glimpsed. More energetic music is reserved for the transitions.

Following a structural pattern sometimes used by Brahms, Stanford begins what would be the development section with a new statement of his main, "gorgeous Tragedy", theme. It is now heard more broadly, forte, in all its sombre splendour. Considerable development ensues before D major is reached and the second subjects are heard again. The one previously heard on the horns is now allotted to the organ, softly glimpsed through the strings. This is a magical moment.

Stanford could, at this point, have whipped up the tempo and finished with a jolly coda. Instead, the minor key returns and there is a massive restatement of the "gorgeous Tragedy" theme, underpinned by the "pealing organ". Traditional sonata form has now been stood on its head and a jolly coda after this would be merely superficial. As the major key returns the tempo slows and the climax is capped by a return of a theme from the slow movement. The music subsides to "bring all Heav’n before mine eyes" and to usher in what is presumably the first great "epilogue" in a British symphony. As Paul Rodmell has noted, it comes exceedingly close to anticipating, even in the rising scale of the material on which it is based, the coda of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony.

From the last statement of the "gorgeous Tragedy" theme to the coda, Handley is in inspired form, at least as much so as Lloyd-Jones. It had evidently crossed his mind that the music he was conducting might actually be great music. Unfortunately, up to that point his input has been no greater than might have been expected of any competent metronome. The ideas I have expressed about the structure of this movement are not thoughts I have been harbouring for a decade or so, they are things I have realized as a result of listening to Lloyd-Jones. He conducts this like an operatic finale. Each theme is a different "character". The characters then encounter a dramatic event which changes their lives and produces an unexpected but wholly convincing conclusion.

I had some doubts about this Symphony while I had only Handley to listen to. It now seems to me a perfectly achieved work of art. If you like romantic symphonies, and I don’t only mean British ones, do give this disc a try. In view of Lloyd-Jones’s clear superiority in "L’Allegro ed il Penseroso", my very slight preference for Handley in the less important "Elegiac" Symphony may be virtually brushed aside.

Christopher Howell

see also review by John Quinn


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