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Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Symphony No. 6 in E flat major, ‘In honour of the life-work of a great artist: George Frederick Watts’ Op. 94 (1905) [37:23]
Symphony No. 3 in F minor ‘Irish’, Op. 28 (1887)* [42:56]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
rec. 25-26 July 2006; *18-19 June 2007, The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, UK DDD
NAXOS 8.570355 [80:18]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Stanford composed 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.

John Quinn

Previous releases in the series:
Symphonies Nos. 4 & 7
Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5



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