Christopher Howell suggested to me that, in
the early nineteen-seventies, it was a dangerous thing to
admit to liking the music of Charles Villiers Stanford. I
agree with him totally. When I discovered that Parry and Stanford
had composed some twelve symphonies between them, I remember
telling a school-friend that I would love to hear them. In
those days I presumed that I never would. He ridiculed me
and suggested that I should concentrate on Mahler and Bruckner
and ignore this second-rate English stuff. I did not take
British music enthusiasts have not been well-served
by pianists electing to play Stanford’s music. I seem to recall
an old Pearl LP that had a selection of Parry’s Shulbrede
Tunes and Stanford’s Three Rhapsodies played by John Parry.
And then there were two CDs of music by Peter Jacobs, who
recorded both sets of Preludes and the Dante Rhapsodies.
But I guess that if you blinked, these offerings would have
been missed. Certainly there seems to be little in the CD
catalogue today, and rarely, if ever have I seen notice of
a piano recitalist playing any pieces by Stanford. So this
disc is really my introduction to the whole range of his piano
music. And I imagine the same will be true for most other
enthusiasts of his music.
I think that the knack of listening to this
CD is to explore the pieces individually or as chronological
groups. For example the early Sarabande and Gigue
show two sides of the composer’s nature - the epic-Celtic
and the developed wit which could be Irish, English or just
simply Stanford. The Gigue looks forward to the humour
of a Grainger or perhaps even a Holst. The Sarabande
is a sad piece that evokes a land of lost content.
Talking about the ‘land of lost content’, the
final piece ‘Addio’ is a war piece. Stanford wrote
a number of works that were dedicated to friends and pupils
who lost their lives during the Great War. ‘Addio’
bears no such dedication, yet we are in the presence of great,
elegiac music. Howell suggests that it is a ‘funeral march’
and I believe he is correct. Yet the outworking of this music
moves the emotion from the cortège to a reflection on the
life and longings and dreams of the person deceased - the
land never to be seen again and perhaps the composer himself.
Most of the numbers on this CD were written
between 1912 and 1920. It was at a time when Stanford had
moved away from writing the large-scale works of his younger
days and was exploring a more personal idiom. Additionally,
he was harking back to the days when he had been an accomplished
pianist. The programme notes quote Stanford’s first biographer
as stating that his “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 that pervaded every note of
the whole and a sparkle which made one chuckle.”
But other considerations began to fill Stanford’s
mind. Firstly, there was the tension developing between Great
Britain and Germany. Whatever the politics of the situation,
Stanford could not forget that it had been the Germans who
had offered him ‘warm hospitality’. It was Germany which had
been the ‘cradle of Western music’ which so inspired him and
also where he had met his wife. Now the two countries were
flying headlong towards war. The old order was passing away.
And then there was Ireland. The old Anglo-Irish hegemony had
by and large had its day. The talk was of Home Rule and Independence
– a political solution that the Dublin-born Stanford bitterly
opposed. Many of his pieces began to take on a Celtic hue
– a definite Irish accent. However, this was not in any sense
nationalist: it was an unconscious harking back to an Ireland
of the mists – a country and a time and a people that never
really existed, except perhaps in the bards’ imagination.
It is not necessary to analyse or to discuss
each of the pieces recorded on this CD. It is sufficient to
recall that some of these works may emphasise the Celtic side
of the composer’s nature and others the Germanic – or classical/romantic
part of his make-up. For example the gorgeous Nocturne in
G minor was surely dreamt of in a far corner of Erin – whereas
the Scherzo Marziale and the Toccata in C owe more
to Brahms and Schumann. Yet again, Stanford sometimes wears
his heart on his sleeve. Just listen to the Tempo di Valse
or the Waltz in D minor. This is surely the work of a
man of deep passion – not extrovert perhaps, but profound
nonetheless. Perhaps the two Ballades, the one in G minor
and the other in F major deserve to be better known. These
are crossover works – pieces that take up the challenge laid
down by Chopin and colour it with some of the forty shades
I have a confession to make. I would rather
listen to the music (generally) of Stanford than Brahms. I
can hear people being horrified at this and suggesting that
anyone who has this kind of taste ought not to be writing
CD reviews – or anything else for that matter. Don’t get me
wrong – I like Brahms – but Stanford I like better. He moves
me. I do understand that not everything from the Irishman’s
pen is a work of genius, but I would suggest that most of
it is not as ‘dry as dust’ - the old label used by those who
show disapprobation towards his music. Take this present CD.
If you can hear only one track, listen to the Caprice in D
minor, which was composed just before the First World War.
It is a masterpiece of piano music: the best thing on a CD
that is full of good things. This music explores depths of
emotion and uses piano techniques that go beyond any suggestion
that Stanford was writing mere salon music. The balance, the
poise, the structure – all are as near-perfect as it is possible
to get. I listened to this Caprice three times straight
through: I still cannot believe it has taken me over 50 years
to discover this piece. What hidden gems lie in wait?
Which brings me to my only criticism of this
disc: and it is not a bad one, really. Howell has made a selection
from the considerable catalogue of Stanford’s piano music.
For example, he has given us one or two pieces from published
collections or groups of pieces. He has teased us. He has
allowed the listener to want more. But is the delivery of
this possible? As a greedy Stanford-ian I certainly hope so.
However, he has made a rod for his own back. It will be difficult
to present the ‘collected’ works now that he has started to
‘cherry-pick’. Suites and groups of pieces really ought to
be kept together – the great with the less good, even. Howell
tells me that the entire corpus would take some seven CDs
to include every jot and tittle. Bring it on, I say. He may
have cherry-picked, but I guess that there are many more sweet
cherries amongst this virtually unknown music.
And if any future Stanford releases are played
as well and as sympathetically and as enthusiastically as
this present CD, they will be well worth waiting for.
Finally, let me quote a sentence from Christopher
Howell: he wrote to me that “The owner of Sheva, Ermanno De
Stefani, had never heard of Stanford before [making this recording] but
has been a lifelong fan of British culture generally and made
the rather encouraging comment as we listened to the final
edit of the D minor Caprice that "really, one listens
to this more willingly than Brahms. It has the same fullness
without being clumsy". I don't think even I would invite
ridicule by making quite such a claim! I find, though, that Italians
generally like Stanford when given a chance”.
Hmm. I have already made the same claim as
the Italian ‘signore’ – in more than one forum. I hope I survive.