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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. 136/2 (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 019 [63:36]

Experience Classicsonline


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 his advice.

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 of green.

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.

John France


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