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Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Music - Land of Sunset Glories
Nocturne in G minor, Op.148/1 (1917) [7:27]
Tempo di Valse, Op.163/10 (1918) [1:19]
Basso Ostinato, Op.179/14 (1920) [2:52]
Caprice in C minor, Op.136/1 (1913) [4:24]
Roundel, Op. 132/4 (1912) [3:09]
Ballade in G minor, Op. 170 (1919) [8:22]
Waltz in D minor, Op. 178/2 (pub.1923) [2:33]
Ballade in F major, Op. 148/2 (1917) [7:22]
Scherzo Marziale, Op.148/3 (1917) [4:04]
Caprice in D minor, Op.136/2 (1913) [9:40]
Toccata in C minor, Op. 132/6 (1912) [1:52]
Sarabande, Op. 2/2 (1875) [3:16]
Gigue, Op. 2/3 (1875) [2:04]
Addio, Op. 179/24 (1920) [4:30]
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 28-29 July 2008, Studio L’Eremo, Lessona, Italy. DDD
Sheva label: destefaniermanno@libero.it
SHEVA 019 [63:36]

Experience Classicsonline

 

A great figure in British music when his country needed such men.” Cyril Rootham (Charles Stanford - obituary by Cyril Rootham, RCM Magazine, 20/2/1924)

I warmly welcome this collection of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s rarely heard piano music. It’s from the Sheva label of Piedmont, Italy and was produced by Ermanno de Stefani. Soloist Christopher Howell has titled the disc Land of Sunset Glories which is a line from Ireland the first of Stanford’s Cushendall Irish song-cycle, Op.118 (1910). Howell explains, “It is not intended to be merely a fanciful title for the new CD. These last years of Stanford’s life were ones of increasing emotional pain and isolation.” Read the full article titled Stanford and the Piano.

A large number of Stanford’s compositions have yet to be recorded and his piano music is one of the most neglected genres of his substantial output. Many of his secular choral works and his sequence of nine operas have been ignored in the recording studio.

For those unfamiliar with the Dublin-born Stanford, his influence on the British music scene was quite remarkable. His influence stretched out to the some of the furthest reaches of the British Empire. He was a gifted composer, who wrote at a rapid pace, and was also known especially for his role as the first composition professor at the Royal College of Music (RCM) from 1883 until 1923. He taught at Cambridge University as professor of music from 1887 until 1924. Stanford’s appointment as conductor of the Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS) in addition to conducting the RCM Orchestra and other provincial orchestras and choruses gave him significant opportunities to programme the music of his choice as well compositions of his own and by his pupils.

Stanford the pedagogue presided over two generations of composition students. His remarkable success as a composition teacher was unprecedented, ‘sprinkling stardust’on two generations of young composers. Amongst their number we find some of the most successful and individual British composers of the twentieth century. The list of his former students who are probably the best known today are: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, John Ireland, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ernest John Moeran, Arthur Bliss, George Dyson, Haydn Wood, Ivor Gurney and Leopold Stokowski.

In addition there are also a large number of lesser-known composers who were former Stanford pupils the majority of whom are virtually unknown to many of us (see list in footnotes). With the odd exception changes in vogue have temporarily buried the music of most of these lesser known composers. Maybe fashion will swing around and a serious reassessment will take place.

Stanford took immense pride in the success of his pupils. Following the release of the first list of prestigious Carnegie Trust award winners he remarked, “The old hen and her chickens have come out very well.” (Charles Stanford - obituary by Edgar Bainton in RCM Magazine, 20/2/1924)  Six out of seven Carnegie Trust winners were scores by his pupils.  

Stanford is frequently at his very best in his sacred works including settings of canticles, hymns, anthems, services and organ works – all composed for the Anglican Church. These are amongst the finest of their type and are still frequently performed in Anglican cathedrals and churches around the world. Although Stanford was a great teacher I am not making any claims for greatness as a composer. However he wrote several works that I consider as great. Several of Stanford’s scores are as impressive as any in their genre. I cannot imagine a more beautiful part-song than The Bluebird. Then there is the glorious Magnificat from the Evening Service in G. Let’s not forget the vigour and dramatic seafaring flavour of the orchestral song-cycle Songs of the Fleet. The remarkably rapt tone-painting and near impressionism of his Irish Rhapsody No.4 Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw’ memorably evokes the Celtic twilight.

Stanford clearly had an affinity for the piano. It was his instrument which he played from a young age. He gave a piano recital in his home town of Dublin when aged only nine. Stanford played the piano throughout his life mainly as a chamber musician and as an accompanist to singers; seldom as a soloist. In his youth Stanford’s primary piano teachers in Dublin, Elizabeth Meeke, Henrietta Flynn and Michael Quarry had all been pupils of the great Prague-born piano virtuoso and composer Ignaz Moscheles. In 1824 Moscheles had also given lessons to Felix Mendelssohn. I also recall that Stanford had a close if unlikely friendship with the concert pianist and composer the maverick Percy Grainger.

Stanford’s friend and fellow Irishman the baritone Harry Plunket Greene fondly remembered his piano playing: “Stanford’s touch was the most delicious thing imaginable, impossible to define. It had a sweetness which gave one a lump in one’s throat; a beauty which pervaded every note of the whole and a sparkle which made one chuckle. It never varied in this respect and seemed inviolate in crabbed passages, fifth-rate pianofortes, or moods of irritation. He never practiced in later life, and yet it was just as beautiful till the day of his death. His playing was just as unself-conscious as himself, his hands just following the colours of his joyous humorous imagination.” (Charles Villiers Stanford biography by Harry Plunket Greene. publisher: Edward Arnold, London (1935) Pg. 33)

The opening track on this Sheva release the Nocturne in G minor is the first work in the op. 148 set of Night Thoughts, Six Short Pieces from 1917. I occasionally sensed a flavour of the orient in this dark and dramatic fusion of Chopin, Schumann and Brahms. The Tempo di Valse is taken from Stanford’s first series of 24 Preludes in all the keys, Op.163/10 from 1918. A brief piece in waltz rhythm, the music carries childhood memories of the nursery.

From the second series of 24 Preludes in all the keys from 1920 the Basso Ostinato Op.179/14 is probably my favourite score on the release. This is glorious music that develops in intensity before reverting to its original mellowness. A Chopinesque theme that I know but cannot identify never seems far away. The Caprice in C minor is the first of the op. 136 set of Five Caprices from 1913. Brisk and lively, often brash, the piece at times looks in the direction of Rachmaninov.   

Completed in 1912 the Roundel is the second in the set of Six Characteristic Pieces, Op. 132. Tender and tasteful, the piece could serve as a tribute to Schumann, a composer Stanford revered. The substantial Ballade in G minor, Op. 170 was written in 1919. Not surprisingly the G minor score has a Chopin quality about it; the composer of four large-scale and magnificent Ballades. Shifting from irascibility to mellowness, from poignancy and jollity the music perhaps mirrors Stanford’s character. Published in 1923 from the set of Three Waltzes, the D minor Waltz, Op. 178/2 is a playful piece, full of life and here taken briskly.

The set of Six Short Pieces entitled Night Thoughts includes the Ballade in F major, Op. 148/2 in which we are moved from turbulence to tenderness, from vigour to consolation, from mournfulness to exuberance. Stanford communicates striking contrasts of mood in the mould of the great Ballade master Chopin. Also part of the Night Thoughts set is the Scherzo Marziale, Op.148/3 with its bold and rather belligerent character.

Irresistible is the Caprice in D minor, the second of the op. 136 set of Five Caprices. This substantial score demonstrates confident and dramatic writing. Surely Stanford had a programmatic inspiration for this captivating D minor score. A headlong dash, compelling and playful, the Toccata in C minor, Op. 132/4 is also from the set of Six Characteristic Pieces. The Sarabande, Op. 2/2, a relatively early score from the 1875 Suite has a tender nobility. A contrasting piece from the same Suite, the Gigue, Op. 2/3 is fresh and breezy and has a slight redolence of Irish folk-music.

Closing the release we hear the last in the set of 24 Preludes series two; it’s Addio, Op. 179/24. With reference to the terrible aftermath of the Great War soloist Chris Howell suggests that “There is no specific reference here, yet it surely depicts a military funeral… The dark mood of searching and pining for a loved one permeates the score. Glimpses of elation induced by fond memories soon evaporate.

There is nothing dry or academic here from Stanford - just a marvellous and rewarding collection of attractive piano pieces with many delights to be uncovered. This recital is clearly a labour of love for pianist Chris Howell who displays a close affinity for Stanford’s music. Howell plays with a character and style that helps reflect the sharply shifting moods of this often beautiful music. The studio recording made at Lessona, Italy is clear and well balanced. In the booklet notes all the basic information is provided although I needed a magnifying glass to read the print.
 
Michael Cookson
 
See also review by John France
 
 
Lesser known Stanford pupils:
It is not possible to obtain a definitive list of all the pupils that Stanford taught. In addition to those mentioned in the text above some of those lesser known Stanford pupils include: Hamish MacCunn, Rebecca Clarke, Gordon Jacob, Rutland Boughton, Arthur Benjamin, William Hurlstone, William Henry Bell, Edgar Bainton, Eugene Goossens, Thomas Dunhill, Cecil Forsyth, Arthur Somervell, Cecil Rootham, Harold Darke, Henry Walford Davies, James Friskin, Ernest Farrar, Charles Wood, Edward Naylor, Heathcote Statham, Frederick Wadely, Alan Taffs, Frank Tapp, William Harris, Geoffrey Toye, Richard Walthew, Marion Scott, George Thalben-Ball, Sydney Paine Waddington, Frank Shera et al. The scores of the majority of which are virtually never heard today. Then there is George Butterworth and Fritz Hart who were former RCM students during Stanford’s tenure. They certainly came under Stanford’s sphere of influence but it is uncertain if they had lessons with him.

 


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