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Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Symphony No. 1 in Bb major (1876) [48:36]
Clarinet Concerto Op.80 (1903) [22:03]
Robert Plane (clarinet)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. Concert Hall. Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 19-20 June 2007. DDD
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Symphonies - Volume 4
NAXOS 8.570356 [70:39]
Experience Classicsonline

I first became aware of British symphonies when I heard Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony. It was not long until I discovered that he wrote another eight. It was but a short step to hearing the symphonic works of Walton, Elgar and one or two from the pen of Bax. Naturally I read a lot about music in those early days, and soon came to realise that there were many such works locked away in the musical vaults. These included the symphonies of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. However, any reference to these works was always qualified by the epithet – ‘dry as dust’. Moreover, perhaps more damningly, it was insisted that they were pale reflections of the music of Johannes Brahms. Of course, as a neophyte, one believes whatever learned musicologists tell you. It was not until I heard a recording of Sir Adrian Boult conducting Parry’s Fifth Symphony that I pricked my ears up. This was a work worthy of hearing. It may not be as great as Elgar’s Second, but it was still a fine piece of music, full of vitality, depth of emotion and good tunes.

A few years later, Chandos embarked on an ambitious scheme to issue the complete Symphonies of both Parry and Stanford. By that time, I had heard Stanford’s Irish Symphony – so I was ready to give these two cycles a chance. They were issued at a time when vinyl was giving way to CDs so I ended up having to buy most of them twice! Nevertheless, they were worth it. After a couple of years the issue was complete – not only all of Parry’s and Stanford’s Symphonies, but also the latter’s Irish Rhapsodies, the Second Piano Concerto and his Clarinet Concerto. It was a magnificent achievement. However, I truly believed that it was a one-off adventure. Buy now, or regret not having them in your collection for ever! However, that was before MP3 – the original Chandos recordings are now available for download. And then, a couple of years ago, I was surprised that Naxos, with David Lloyd-Jones, had decided to embark on another cycle to complement Vernon Handley and the Ulster Orchestra.

It would be easy to apply a kind of progressive aesthetic and write off Stanford’s symphonic achievement as being retro and therefore worthless. It is all too easy to detect echoes, and loud ones at that, of the music of Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. It would be simplistic to suggest that Stanford is no Mahler or Bruckner or Elgar, pushing the boundaries of post-romantic music to its limits. It is much better to try to understand and enjoy these works as they are. Stanford is a consummate craftsman - he understands the formal principles of the symphony better than most and he develops some very subtle approaches to the various so-called ‘standard movement forms’. There is certainly nothing predictable about his music.

The First Symphony in B flat was written in 1876 and was entered into a competition run under the auspices of the Alexandra Palace. It was deemed so successful that it won the second prize. The first prize went to the now long-forgotten composer Francis Williams Davenport. John F. Porte writes, "The judges were the once famous [George] Macfarren, now deemed a musty academic, and Joachim, the famous violinist. There were thirty-eight symphonies submitted.

Stanford’s work was not performed until some three years later. It was never published and was not given again in the composer’s lifetime. However, there is no doubt that the work was successful and did something to draw attention to the twenty-four year old composer."

The Symphony No. 1 is quite long, lasting for more that forty minutes. Naturally with any work of this length there are issues of maintaining the listener’s interest. In this case I believe that Stanford manages to achieve this – with one proviso. Many people hearing this work will assume either that the rumours of his style are true – and they will expect to be bored. Or else they will expect a late-romantic work and be disappointed. Either way there is a danger that fatigue will set in. I guess the true approach to this work is to see it in the trajectory from Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann and treat it as a kind of extension of these three composers. Of course it is no ‘Fifth’ or ‘Ninth’ but I feel it compares well with Mendelssohn and he should certainly not allow Schumann to make him feel embarrassed.

The long opening movement is probably unique in British music prior to Sir Edward Elgar – most especially for its length. There are so many ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ British symphonies from that period - including the other thirty seven that were entered for the competition – so who really knows? I find this music totally satisfying and from the opening slow introduction into the ‘allegro’– the contrast between themes and sections avoids any possible lack of interest. The principal theme and the second subject seem to complement each other in music that is at times reflective and sometimes decisive.

The second movement is hardly a traditional scherzo – it is signed ‘In Landler Tempo’ which suggests an ‘intermezzo’ rather than more robust or witty music. It is not ground-breaking stuff - but both the formal and the instrumental balance reveals this as well thought out music that is both captivating and suave. Stanford contrasts the main theme with two fine trios.

Like a number of Stanford’s Symphonies, the slow movement is probably the heart of this work. Yet this is not some great meditation on the meaning of life – more a reflection on a young man’s dreams. Here and there the careful listener may detect hints of Irish folk-song and a general feel of the Emerald Isle rather than the banks of the Rhine. Look out for the use of the solo violin towards the end of the movement. I think this CD is worth the purchase price just to hear this one movement – although I strongly counsel against excerpting!

The ‘Finale’ manages to combine drive and momentum with a more pedantic, but thoroughly enjoyable fugal passage. Here Stanford makes expert use of the brass. This is an exuberant and exciting end to what was surely a superb First Symphony.

There are a number of other versions the Clarinet Concerto. In fact it is probably the most popular and performed of all of Stanford’s orchestral works. Perhaps most British music enthusiasts will already own Janet Hilton’s account with Vernon Handley on Chandos or one of those by Thea King (Hyperion) or Emma Johnson (ASV Sanctuary). Without wishing to knock any of these fine recordings, I do wish to suggest that this present version is essential for all Stanford enthusiasts. I am especially impressed by the contrast that Robert Plane creates between and within movements. For my money, it is a moving and sometimes revelatory performance.

The Clarinet Concerto is written in three movements with the two outer ones together being nearly the same length as the ‘andante con moto’. The opening movement balances a sense of exuberance with more reflective music that definitely looks forward to the slow movement. It ends quietly and prepares the way for the ‘andante’, which is the heart of the work. Here the fifty-one year old composer is in his element. Every note of the music makes it mark, yet it does not wear its heart upon its sleeve. This is not all ‘genial’ as clouds impose on the progress of this music. I would suggest that in some ways there is a valedictory feel to this movement. Yet just before the depression sets in, the geniality is revealed: once again the sun shines. However, all of this is truly beautiful. The final movement, an allegro moderato, resolves any outstanding problems created in the foregoing movements and, after a number of quasi-cadenza episodes, leads the work to an optimistic and positive conclusion.

I am disappointed that there is no mention in the liner-notes about the soloist, Robert Plane, the orchestra or David Lloyd-Jones. In these days of the ‘Net’ it is easy to find out about the protagonists – but a few words would have been helpful – for those who are not permanently logged-on or who wish to listen to the music away from a computer terminal! The programme notes, by Richard Whitehouse, could have been a tad fuller for these two major works – but I guess there is little historical material to build on.

Yet all-in-all this is essential listening for three groups of people. One, Stanford buffs like myself who never imagined I would live to see one, let alone two Stanford cycles in my lifetime. Secondly, to any British music fan who wants to see what kind of symphonies were being written in the 1870s. And finally by those people who still swear by the old lie that Stanford is somehow ‘dry as dust’, that he lacks romance, drama, poetry, interest and sheer musicality. They need to get their heads around this CD and discover why people are coming to regard Stanford as the G.O.M. (Great Old Man).

John France




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