Stanford’s Third Symphony is perhaps his most familiar, not least
because it has been recorded twice before. It appeared in Vernon
Handley’s Chandos cycle. But four years before Handley set down
his version, in 1986, EMI made a recording, which was conducted
by Norman Del Mar. Coincidentally that 1982 recording was also
made by Bournemouth players - on that occasion the Bournemouth
Sinfonietta was used.
The work was a conspicuous
success when it first appeared, and not just in Britain. It
was included in the opening concert at the Concertgebouw in
Amsterdam and in 1910 it was given two performances in New York
under the baton of Mahler, no less. I wonder what Mahler made
of it? That information is contained in the booklet notes that
Lewis Foreman wrote for the Handley set. As with previous issues
in this series the notes for Naxos by Richard Whitehouse are
quite good but though he describes the music well enough it’s
a pity he misses out little nuggets such as this. Actually,
I think information like this is quite important for it gives
an idea of Stanford’s prestige in his own lifetime even though
his symphonies, and so much else, has since fallen into neglect.
The work is known
as the ‘Irish’ because in it the Dublin-born composer returned
to his roots, as it were, incorporating some traditional Irish
melodies into the score. Irish material is least obvious in
the first movement, which is often strong and purposeful in
character at times, though with a pleasing lyrical strain also.
This is followed by a nimble scherzo-like movement, which has
the style of an Irish jig and a singing, legato trio.
A rippling harp
is very prominent at the start of the slow movement, with the
woodwind providing a commentary. The first couple of minutes
of this movement are very suggestive of the Celtic twilight.
It is in this part of the symphony that one feels the evidence
of Brahms most keenly. Richard Whitehouse very rightly points
this out but Lewis Foreman goes further and draws attention
to a strong thematic resemblance to the slow movement of the
Brahms Fourth symphony, which had appeared the year before this
Stanford symphony. Whether the resemblance is accidental or
intentional, Stanford crafts an impressive, rather beautiful
slow movement. There are two Irish melodies in the finale, the
first of which is a perky idea, first heard on woodwind against
string pizzicati. This lively and enjoyable finale, which
culminates in an optimistic, rather grand conclusion, is projected
confidently by David Lloyd-Jones and his players.
The Third Symphony
enjoyed a good deal of success in the first two or three decades
after its première but the Sixth suffered a different fate.
It was first heard in 1906 but after just one more performance
it appears to have lain unplayed for some eighty years until,
presumably, Vernon Handley revived it as part of his project
for Chandos. Hearing it now in this fine new recording it’s
hard to understand this neglect.
it to honour the memory of the recently deceased British artist,
George Frederick Watts (1817-1904). Lewis Foreman tells us that
Watts was “one of the great British artistic figures of his
age” and was referred to by at least one commentator as ‘the
English Michaelangelo’. Stanford apparently acknowledged the
specific influence of several of Watts’ works of art on individual
movements in the Sixth symphony.
It’s an appealing
work. The first movement strikes a confident tone from the outset.
I wrote in my listening notes “bright, fresh air music.” It’s
the energetic melodiousness of the music that particularly impresses.
The crisp, alert playing of the Bournemouth orchestra enhances
the appeal of the music significantly.
In a recent posting
on the MusicWeb message board my colleague, John France suggested
that the slow movement of the Sixth symphony is “one of the
loveliest pieces of undiscovered music in British Music.” He
went on to aver, “If nothing else, surely it nails the lie,
of dry as dust - poetically speaking!!” I know what he means;
it is a beautiful creation and it starts as it means to go on
with a haunting, songful cor anglais theme that passes in due
course to the violins. The scoring for strings, wind and harp
gives great pleasure throughout the movement, which is the most
extended of the four, and the playing on this recording is relaxed
and lyrical. At 5:03 the mood darkens somewhat and the brass
section comes to the fore. However, after an impressive climax
the skies clear once again, the opening mood is re-established
and the movement is brought to a pacific close.
The short, bustling
scherzo is vivacious and a good contrast to the thoughtful poetry
of the preceding movement. The finale follows without a break
– the last minute or so of the third movement is a transition
passage, led by the brass. Much of the music of the finale
has a martial air but the march is neither military nor bombastic.
A lyrical, cheerful character is maintained. From about 7:28
Stanford winds the movement down into a noble epilogue. Here
the music is mainly quiet, though there is a brief climax around
8:40. The music glows gently and this epilogue provides a very
satisfying end to a fine, big-hearted symphony.
So the Naxos Stanford
cycle nears the home straight, with only the First symphony
remaining to be issued. This latest instalment maintains the
high standards of the previous two releases, offering fine playing,
which is by turns spirited and poetic, and very good sound.
As ever, David Lloyd-Jones is thoroughly inside the music. Vernon
Handley’s Chandos cycle is by no means superseded but it’s good
to have these fresh, appealing symphonies available in alternative
versions, especially at an attractive price. Those who have
invested in earlier volumes will need no persuading to add this
latest instalment. If you haven’t tried Stanford’s symphonies,
this fine disc will be an excellent introduction.
Previous releases in the series:
Nos. 4 & 7
Nos. 2 & 5