RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat major, Op.35 (1889) [31:43]
Legend (1893) [5:32]
Six Irish Fantasies Op.54, (1894): No.3 Jig [5:37]; No.5 Hush Song [6:45]
Piano Quartet No.2 in C minor, Op.133 (ed. Jeremy Dibble) (1913) [30:10]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); Benjamin Frith (piano)) David Adams (viola)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, Pulborough, Sussex, 14-16 December 2009
NAXOS 8.572452 [79:47]
One cannot help but agree with Charles Porte when he wrote (in 1921) that Stanford’s Piano Trio No.1 is the work of ‘a master-musician both from a technical and aesthetical point of view ...’ He then considers how surprised the dedicatee Hans von Bülow must have been at the sheer quality of this work bearing in mind the standard of the British music of the period in which it was written. In fact, von Bülow wrote to the composer, ‘Good gracious! What wonderful progress your country is making owing to your genius’, after he had received a copy of the work whilst in Hamburg. Accepting the dedication of the work, he went on to say that, ‘together with Brahms' Op. 108, it was the best piece of music that his name had been adorned with’.
Now, [most] present-day music critics have amended their views about the ‘Land without Music’ during the Victorian era, and accept that much first-class music had been written during this period. However, the fact remains that this Trio is a cut above the competition. The listener is conscious of the work's inventiveness and inspiration from the very opening bars. There is a fine balance between the classical construction of the work and the romantic tone of much of the music.
The Trio is interesting in having no slow movement as such - the middle movements are an ‘allegretto con moto’ and a ‘tempo di minuetto’. However, this is not a particular problem as the latter movement is much more serious in intent than the title may at first imply. And the former movement has a number of relaxed and reflective episodes that offer considerable emotional variety. And finally, the lovely second subject of the first movement gives depth to this work without descending into sentimentality. The final ‘allegro moderato’ is a turbulent sonata rondo, which I believe asks more questions than it answers.
This is a beautiful, satisfying and technically competent work that is full of spontaneity and invention. It deserves to be in the repertoire of all chamber music ensembles.
The Piano Trio No. 1 in E flat major, Op.35 was first performed at an Oxford Musical Union concert on 25 November 1889 and was subsequently heard in London in January 1890 at one of Edward Dannreuther’s chamber concerts at Orme Square, Bayswater.
The Legend is an exquisite little discovery. The liner-notes tell us that it was published in 1893 at a time when the composer was ‘flitting’ from Harvey Road in Cambridge to Holland Street, Kensington. This is a reflective work that in spite of its good-natured middle section speaks of deeper thoughts. Like most musical ‘legends’ it is not possible to tell what the ‘programme’ might be. It does not matter: it is a perfect evocation of the Irish character and, at the start and conclusion, the landscape.
Stanford completed the Six Irish Fantasies Op. 54 in October 1893. They were dedicated to the violinist Lady Wilma Hallé. In their day, they were exceptionally popular, both in the recital rooms and with ‘gifted amateurs’. The two numbers presented here are the ‘Jig’ and the ‘Hush Song’ which were the third and fifth movements respectively. The Jig is a beautifully realised pastiche of the Irish dance given in the form of a theme with variations. I am not aware if any traditional tune was used; however the result is convincing and is in Stanford’s best ‘Irish’ style.
The deeply moving ‘Hush Song’ is a lullaby that creates a feeling of stasis and serenity. It is more complex than a first hearing may suggest. Jeremy Dibble notes the ‘hypnotic effect [created by] ... its delicious diatonic harmonies but also from its unexpected tonal divergences’. For the curious the other four movements are ‘Lament’, ‘Boat-song’, ‘War Song’ and ‘Reel’.
I guess I am greedy, but I feel it is a pity that all six of the Irish Fantasies could not have been shoehorned onto this CD as I understand that they are not currently available anywhere else. However, there are technical limits! Perhaps they could have been provided as ‘downloads’ from the Naxos site? Let us hope that they appear in the near-future on subsequent releases.
The top-line comment for the Piano Quartet No. 2 in C minor, Op. 133 is Wow! We have the Stanford (and many other composers) scholar Jeremy Dibble to thank for editing the manuscript of this work and producing a performing edition. It was given its first modern performance at the Corbridge Festival, Northumberland, in August 2010 by the Gould Trio. The liner-notes suggest that the work probably only received a single contemporary performance by members of the Wesseley Quartet and the pianist Johanne Stockmarr at the Bechstein Hall (now the Wigmore Hall) on 14 March 1914. It is almost unbelievable that a work which is so manifestly impressive has remained unheard for over ninety years.
The work is a product of Stanford’s time of political involvement with the anti-Home Rule movement in Ireland and of his support for Edward Carson in Ulster. Although there is not a political programme to this music, the seriousness and depth of the argument can be compared to the great Irish Rhapsody No. 4 with its wide emotional sweep from grandeur and boldness to tenderness. That Rhapsody was prefaced by the following lines: - ‘Land of Song!’ said the warrior-bard, ‘Tho’ all the world betrays thee, One sword at least thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!’ and carries the subtitle The Fisherman of Loch Neagh and what he saw.
The Piano Quartet is written in strong contrasting movements. The opening is simply stunning - two contrasting themes present a balance between a restive mood and one of open-hearted generosity, and, rare for this work, warmth. This is one of the finest ‘first movements’ that I have heard from Stanford’s pen. It has been well summed-up by Jeremy Dibble as being a display of ‘passionate gravity’.
I find the slow movement deeply moving and often troubling. The notes point out that this music moves between 3/8 and 5/8 time creating an unsettling mood. There is much here that nods to Irish music, without an actual folk tune being utilised. However there is nothing pastoral or bucolic about this movement, nor is it in any way heart-easing or encouraging.
The ‘scherzo’ is to my mind scary. There is much happening in this movement that pushes the emotional content beyond most of what Stanford has previously written. It is not achieved by dissonance but by rhythm and a sense of propulsion that seems almost inhuman. However the trio section does restore the equilibrium a little.
The last movement, an allegro, which as Jeremy Dibble points out, ‘exudes an air of confidence’ with its large and generously proportioned main theme. This movement is to a certain extent cyclical with references to the slow movement. The most magical part of the work is a reminiscence of the opening of the first movement in a moving ‘tranquillo’ shortly before the coda and the positive conclusion.
Whatever one’s political views about the ‘Home-Rule’ movement and Edward Carson’s opposition to it, there is no doubt that it was a time of great stress and worry for all people living in Ireland. This was a period when various private armies began to line up against each other with tragic results that rolled on into the future. The present Piano Quartet is the Dublin-born Stanford’s expression of the fears, doubts and hopes of many Irishmen, most especially Ulstermen. As such, it is supremely successful: to my mind it is a major masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire.
The playing of all the music on this CD is simply superb. The Gould Trio, David Adams and Benjamin Frith are bold advocates for this important and interesting music. It is finely recorded. The notes by Jeremy Dibble are extremely helpful.
I need to say little in summary. My feelings about this CD must be fairly apparent to anyone who has followed my review so far. This is one of the best CDs of British chamber music to be released in recent years. It is essential listening for anyone who loves Stanford and/or British chamber music. How anyone could listen to this CD and still believe that Stanford’s music is ‘as dry as dust’ totally evades me.
see also review by Christopher Howell (October 2011 Recording of the Month)
How anyone could listen to this CD and still believe that Stanford’s music is ‘as dry as dust’ totally evades me.